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Saturday, March 16, 2019

The emerging new world order’s alarm bells: Men like Brandon Tarrant and Andreas Breivik



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

This week’s attack on two mosques in New Zealand reflects a paradigm shift: the erosion of liberal values and the rise of civilisationalism at the expense of the nation state.

So do broader phenomena like wide spread Islamophobia with the crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang as its extreme, and growing ant-Semitism These phenomena are fuelled by increasing intolerance and racism enabled by far right and world leaders as well as ultra-conservatives and jihadists.

These world leaders and far right ideologues couch their policies and views in terms of defending a civilization rather than exclusively a nation state defined by its citizenry and borders.

As a result, men like China’s Xi Jingping, India’s Narendra Modi, Hungary’s Victor Orban and US president Donald J. Trump as well as ideologues such as Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former strategy advisor, shape an environment that legitimizes violence against the other.

By further enabling abuse of human, minority and refugee rights, they facilitate the erosion of the norms of debate and mainstream hate speech.

Blunt and crude language employed by leaders, politicians, some media and some people of the cloth helps shape an environment in which concepts of civility and mutual respect are lost.

Consequently, the likes of Brenton Tarrant, the perpetrator of the attacks on the Christchurch mosque in which 49 people died, or Andreas Breivik, the Norwegian far-right militant who in 2011 killed 78 people in attacks on government buildings and a youth summer camp, are not simply products of prejudice.

Prejudice, often only latent, is a fact of life. Its inculcated in whatever culture as well as education in schools and homes irrespective of political, religious, liberal, conservative and societal environment.

Men like Messrs. Tarrant and Breivik emerge when prejudice is weaponized by a political and/or social environment that legitimizes it. They are emboldened when prejudice fuses with politically and/or religiously manufactured fear, the undermining of principles of relativity, increased currency of absolutism, and the hollowing out of pluralism.

Their world is powered by the progressive abandonment of the notion of a world that is populated by a multitude of equally valid faiths, worldviews and belief systems.

The rise of civilisationalism allows men like Messrs. Tarrant and Breivik, white Christian supremacists, to justify their acts of violence in civilizational terms. They believe their civilization is under attack as a result of pluralism, diversity and migration

The same is true for jihadists who aim to brutally establish their vision of Islamic rule at the expense not only of non-Muslim minorities but also Muslims they deem no different than infidels.

Civilisationalism provides the justification for men like Hungary’s Mr. Orban to adopt militant anti-migration policies and launch attacks laced with anti-Semitism on liberals like financier and philanthropist George Soros.

It also fuels China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western province of Xinjiang, an attempt to Sinicize Islam and the most frontal assault on the Islamic faith in recent memory.

Similarly, civilisationalism validates Mr. Modi’s notions of India as a Hindu civilizational state and Mr. Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-migrant policies and his continued vacillation between lending racism and white supremacism legitimacy and condemning far-right exclusivism.

Civilisationalism poses a threat not only to the world we live in today but to the outcome of the geopolitical struggle of what will be the new world order. The threat goes beyond the battle for spheres of influence or competition of political systems.

Civilisationalism creates the glue for like-minded thinking, if not a tacit understanding, between men like Messrs. Xi, Orban, Modi and Trump, on the values that should undergird a new world order.

These men couch their policies as much in civilisationalism as in terms of defense of national interest and security.

Their embrace of civilisationalism benefits from the fact that 21st century autocracy and authoritarianism vests survival not only in repression of dissent and denial of freedom of expression but also maintaining at least some of the trappings of pluralism.

Those trappings can include representational bodies with no or severely limited powers, toothless opposition groups, government-controlled non-governmental organizations, and some degree of accountability.

The rise of civilisationalism is further facilitated by a failure to realize that the crisis of democracy and the revival of authoritarianism did not emerge recently but dates back to the first half of 1990s.
Political scientists Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg concluded in a just published study that some 75 countries have embraced elements of autocracy since the mid-1990s. Key countries among them have also adopted aspects of civilisationalism.

The scholars, nonetheless, struck an optimistic tone. “While this is a cause for concern, the historical perspective…shows that panic is not warranted: the current declines are relatively mild and the global share of democratic countries remains close to its all-time high,” they said.

This week’s attack in Christchurch is one of multiple civilizational writings on the wall.
So are the killings committed by Mr. Breivik; multiple jihadist attacks, the recasting of political strife in Syria and Bahrain in sectarian terms; the increasing precarity of minorities whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish; rising Buddhist nationalism, and the lack of humanitarianism and compassion towards refugees fleeing war and persecution.

These alarm bells coupled with the tacit civilisationalism-based understanding between some of the world’s most powerful men brushes aside the lessons of genocide in recent decades.

Ignoring the lessons of Nazi Germany, Hutu Rwanda, the Serbian siege of Srebrenica or the Islamic State’s Yazidis poses the foremost threat to a world that is based on principles of humanitarianism, compassion, live-and-let-live, and human and minority rights.

Framing the challenge, Financial Times columnist Gideon Rahman noted that Mr. Trump’s “predecessors confidently proclaimed that American values were ‘universal’ and were destined to triumph across the world. And it was the global power of western ideas that has made the nation-state the international norm for political organisation. The rise of Asian powers such as China and India may create new models: step forward, the ‘civilisation state.’”

Mr. Rahman argues that a civilizational state rejects human rights, propagates exclusivism and institutions that are rooted in a unique culture rather than principles of equality and universalism, and distrusts minorities and migrants because they are not part of a core civilisation.

In short, a breeding ground for strife and conflict that can only be kept in check by increasingly harsh repression and/or attempts at mass re-education and homogenization of the other – ultimately a recipe for instability rather than stability and equitable progress.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Chinese pressure tactics put countries between a rock and a hard place



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

Recent Chinese pressure on Myanmar to approve a controversial dam project and the arrest in recent days in Kazakhstan of a human rights activist suggest that China in a seemingly tone-deaf pursuit of its interests is forcing governments to choose between heeding increasingly anti-Chinese public sentiment and pleasing Beijing to ensure continued political and economic support.

Apparent Chinese disregard of public opinion, whether as a matter of policy or because of haphazard insensitivity, is compounded by the powering of anti-Chinese sentiment in several countries as a result of commercial terms of China-funded Belt and Road projects that favour the use of Chinese rather than local labour and materials.

The Chinese approach risks anti-Chinese sentiment meshed with social and economic discontent exploding into popular protests that could prove destabilizing. It potentially could complicate Chinese efforts to ensure that the Muslim world continues to refrain from criticizing China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the strategic but troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Chinese pressure on various countries aimed at imposing its will strokes with China’s adoption of a more aggressive diplomatic posture that has seen its diplomats employ blunt, undiplomatic language and repeatedly break with diplomatic protocol.

As a result, increasing Chinese pressure on Myanmar to revive the suspended Myitsone dam project in ethnic Kachin state is putting the government between a rock and a hard place.

The government is being forced to choose between ignoring popular concerns that the dam would disrupt the traditional economy of the Kachin in a region wracked by ethnic insurgency and cost Myanmar control of the Irrawaddy River, its most important waterway, or risk the ire of China on which it depends politically and economically.

China has reportedly offered in return for the dam to support Myanmar that has been condemned by the United Nations, Western countries and some Muslim nations for its repressive campaign against the Rohingya, some 700,000 of which fled to Bangladesh in 2017.


China’s state-controlled Global Times newspaper recently quoted Xiamen University Myanmar expert Fan Hongwei as saying that “the abrupt suspension of such a significant project has blurred political trust between China and Myanmar.”

Former Myanmar President Thein Sein in 2011 suspended the US$3.6 billion dam project in response to a campaign that brought together conservationists, scholars, and political activists including Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Activists assert the dam, if built as previously designed, would flood 600 square kilometres of forestland in northern Kachin state and export 90 % of the power produced to China.

Myanmar is not the only country that has recently experienced Chinese attempts to force it to act in ways that could have unintended consequences.

Kazakh police, despite widespread public criticism of the crackdown in Xinjiang, last weekend raided the office of Atajurt Eriktileri, a group that has reportedly documented more than 10,000 cases of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China and arrested activist Serikzhan Bilash.

Activists suspect that the raid was the result of Chinese pressure aimed at squashing criticism of the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Similarly, Russian leaders are facing mounting public anger in the Lake Baikal region and the country’s Far East at their alleged connivance in perceived Chinese encroachment on the region’s natural resources including water.

A petition by prominent Russian show business personalities opposing Chinese plans to build a water bottling plant on the shores of Lake Baikal attracted more than 800,000 signatures, signalling the depth of popular resentment and pitfalls of the Russian alliance with China.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi sought to put a good face on differences with China over his country’s demand that the focus of the China Pakistan Economic Project (CPEC), a US$45 billion plus crown jewel of the Belt and Road, be shifted from infrastructure and energy, to poverty alleviation, job creation and agriculture.

China has acknowledged Pakistan’s demand but suggested that the refocussing would happen in good time.

Mr. Qureishi asserted this week had CPEC had entered its second phase but provided few details. The minister said agreements on the second phase that would involve the creation of four economic zones would be concluded at some unspecified date in the future.

China notably refrained in recent months from contributing to a financial bailout of Pakistan that was achieved instead with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who have committed some US$30 billion in funding and investments.

Pakistani and Chinese officials have gone out of their way in recent months to deny any dent in what they have described as an all-weather friendship.

“There is no threat to CPEC. Our government considers it a game changer,” M. Qureishi insisted this week.

China’s deputy chief of mission in Islamabad, Lijian Zhao, insisted in an interview last year and in a series of tweets that China “always supported & stood behind @Pakistan, helping #develop it’s #infrastructure & raise #living standards while creating #job.”

Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding. Indications so far are that China is digging in its heels on the assumption that its political and economic clout will allow it to get its way. Its an approach that ignores potential black swans and does little to garner soft power.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Monday, March 11, 2019

Kazakh police raid raises spectre of China’s long arm



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

A police raid on a Kazakh group documenting the plight of Kazakhs and Uyghurs caught in a brutal crackdown in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang is about more than a government seeking to please Beijing in the hope that it improves the lot of its ethnic kin while preserving diplomatic and economic relations.

Amid suspicions that the raid on the offices of Atajurt Eriktileri and the arrest of activist Serikjan Bilash was carried out as a result of Chinese pressure aimed at squashing criticism of the crackdown, the raid seemingly reflects an increasingly aggressive Chinese effort to impose its will on others and ensure that they observe the respect and deference that China believes it deserves.

Atajurt Eriktileri supports relatives of people who have disappeared in Xinjiang and says it has documented more than 10,000 cases of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China.

Police on Sunday sealed the group’s office in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, seized the group’s computers and archives and flew Mr. Bilash, who said he was being accused of “inciting ethnic hatred, to the Kazakh capital of Astana.

The East Turkistan Awakening Movement, a Washington-based Uyghur exile group, said Mr. Bilash had been arrested on charges of "creating tensions between #Kazakhstan and #China."

The Kazakh police raid is but the latest incident pointing to China’s more aggressive form of diplomacy that includes an increasing number of undiplomatic comments by Chinese diplomats across the globe.

At times, those comments are couched in civilizational terms steeped in what political scientist Zhang Weiwei describes as the rise of the civilizational state under President Xi Jinping.

Describing the trend towards a civilizational state that involves a rejection of Western concepts, including notions of human rights and freedom of religion, Financial Times columnist Gideon Rahman noted that China was not alone in its embrace of the idea as an alternative to the traditional concept of a nation state based on national borders and language. Mr. Rahman suggested that the concept was also gaining currency in countries like India and Russia.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended his diplomat’s more outspoken statements by pointing to China’s need to stand up for its “rightful and lawful interests.” Mr. Wang insisted that China would not tolerate infringements of its sovereignty and national dignity.

“Chinese diplomats, wherever we are in the world, will firmly state our position,” Mr. Wang told journalists this weekend covering the National People’s Congress.

Former senior Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan noted that “China does not just want its new status recognised as a geopolitical fact; China wants its new status accepted as a new norm of East Asian international relations; a hierarchy with China at the apex. Most countries accept the geopolitical fact; few accept the norm.”

Examples of China’s more aggressive attitude abound while the Kazakh raid suggests that China’s concepts of deference and respect amount to far more than traditional notions of respect. They also provide a potential insight into the values and norms that in China’s view would undergird a new world order.

China’s notion of deference was put on display last September at the Pacific Islands Forum when Beijing’s ambassador to Fiji, Du Qiwen, allegedly demanded the right to speak before Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sosene Sopoaga. The forum’s host, Nauru president Baron Waqa accused the Chinese envoy of being “insolent” and a “bully.”

Both Nauru and Tuvalu, to China’s chagrin, maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.


The summit ended without a final statement because of disagreements between the United States and China. Chinese officials dismissed the report of them having attempted to gain access to the foreign minister’s office as “a rumour spread by some people with a hidden agenda."

In an oped in The Hill Times, an Ottawa-based newspaper, Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to Canada, described as “Western egotism and white supremacy” demands that China release two Canadian nationals arrested in China.

The two Canadians are being held in apparent retaliation for the detention in Canada at the behest of the United Sates of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on charges of having misled banks about the company’s business dealings with Iran.

A series of incidents in the wake of a visit to Sweden last September by the Dalai Lama involving Chinese tourists and a satirical Swedish television show that poked fun at Chinese visitors and excluded Taiwan and parts of Tibet from a map of China drew the ire of the Chinese embassy in Stockholm.

The embassy denounced Swedish police as “inhumane,” decried “so-called freedom of expression,” charged that the tv show “advocate(s) racism and xenophobia outright, and openly provoke(s) and instigate(s) racial hatred and confrontation,” and issued a safety alert to Chinese tourists because of multiple cases of theft and robbery and poor treatment by Swedish police.


The raid in Kazakhstan, like earlier cases such as Egypt’s return at China’s request in 2017 of up to 200 Uyghur students to an uncertain future in the People’s Republic, suggests that Beijing maintains an intrusive, far-reaching definition of its concept of deference and respect.

Kazakh activists charged that the raid was indicative of the kind of pressure applied by China. “Our government doesn’t want to spoil relations between Kazakhstan and China,” said Atajurt’s lawyer, Aiman Umarova.

There was no independent confirmation of assertions that Chinese pressure prompted the raid.

In a video statement, Mr. Bilash confirmed that he was Kazakh police custody and had not been detained “by either the Chinese or Chinese spies”.

Mr. Bilash’s wife, Leila Adilzhan, said she was "afraid our government will give him to China."

That may be one step too far for the Kazakh government given mounting anti-Chinese summit among Kazakhs and public demands that Kazakhstan be more forceful in its standing up to China for the rights of Kazakh nationals and Chinese citizens of Kazakh descent. Kazakhs constitute the second largest minority in Xinjiang after Uyghurs.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Iran and North Korea highlight pitfalls of Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

Donald J. Trump’s hitherto failed ‘maximum pressure’ approach to Iran, as well as for that matter North Korea, begs the question what the US president’s true objectives are and what options he is left with should the policy ultimately fail.

In the case of North Korea, it remains to be seen whether the country’s reported rebuilding of a rocket launch site after the US president last month walked away from his summit in Hanoi with Kim-Jong-un constitutes a negotiating tactic or a breakdown. The site was partially dismantled as a goodwill gesture after the two men first met in Singapore last year.

A breakdown coupled with even harsher sanctions that similarly may not do the job risks leaving Mr. Trump with few good options beyond some kind of military operation.

Mr. Trump has so far credibly conveyed his intent of wanting to fully denuclearize North Korea rather than ultimately change its regime, a further indication of the apparent comfort he finds in dealing with at least some autocratic and authoritarian leaders.

The picture with regard to North Korea and Iran is both similar and different.

Iranian resilience backed by key players in the international community determined to salvage the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program could blunt the impact of harsh US sanctions, again leaving the United States with few good options beyond either backing away from its maximalist approach or weighing overt or covert military action.

Mr. Trump’s intentions regarding Iran, in contrast to North Korea, are far less clear. Increasingly strident language by the president’s hard-line national security advisor, John Bolton, as well as his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, coupled with the specific changes of Iranian policies that the US is demanding, suggest that regime change rather than reform may be the president’s true objective. It is hard to see how Iran could comply with the US demands without a change of regime.

For now, Iran’s strategy appears to be circumventing sanctions in every way it can, ensuring continued support by Europe, China and Russia, and waiting it out to see whether Mr. Trump gets a second term in the 2020 US elections in the hope that a Democratic president comes to office who would negotiate a return of the United States to the nuclear accord.

“A pressure campaign will only be effective if enough time is dedicated to it. In other words, there are no quick and easy victories, as the North Korean case demonstrates. And attempts to get them will only push the goalposts further away,” said political scientist Ariane M. Tabatabai.

In a twist of irony, carrot-and-stick-backed efforts by international regulators to get Pakistan and Iran to significantly upgrade their legal abilities to counter political violence potentially are proving to be more effective than maximum pressure.

Concern that Pakistan could be blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, compounded by mounting tension with India, prompted Pakistan in recent days to crackdown on long tolerated militant groups.

Blacklisting potentially would have a debilitating impact on Pakistan’s crisis-ridden economy. It would restrict the ability of multilateral organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to aid or lend to Pakistan.

The fact that Iran faces a similar dilemma has sparked intense debate in the Islamic republic about how to deal with FATF demands that it join the watchdog and significantly upgrade its legal anti-money laundering and terrorism finance infrastructure to evade being blacklisted.

Iran’s parliament has so far passed two of four bills required for membership and together with the Expediency and Discernment Council is debating Iranian accession to the Combating the Financing of Terrorism Convention (CFT) and the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime or Palermo Convention.

The FATF demands have put Iran between a rock and a hard place.

Iranian ratification of those conventions coupled with FATF membership holds out the promise of more effectively and more quickly than US maximum pressure curtailing Iran’s ability to fund regional proxies.

Failure to comply could significantly increase the pain of US sanctions by prompting those banks and financial institutions still willing to do business with Iran to rethink their positions.
It would also likely restrict the ability of supporters of the nuclear agreement to help Iran soften the impact of the sanctions.
"If you want us to succeed in the talks with Europe, at least the four proposed bills must be ratified," said member of the Iranian parliament, Abulfazle Mousavi.

“By joining, Iranian banks will be under what will be unprecedented international scrutiny. This will make it more difficult, although not impossible, for Iran to transfer money to terror organizations… such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Additionally, Iranian membership in the FATF would weaken the financial strength of the Iranian hard-liners, who have always called for a more aggressive foreign policy in the region,” said Iran scholar Meir Javedanfar.

That is what has fuelled opposition in Iran to acceptance of FATF’s requirements. Hardliners have warned that FATF would effectively impair Iran’s ability to pursue a defense strategy focused on fighting the country’s foreign policy and military battles far beyond its borders and would give US sanctions more bite.

"Joining these conventions will lead to interference with Iran's internal affairs, including financial and economic issues,” said Abolfazl Hasanbeygi, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.

Mr. Hasanbeygi warned that FATF would be the vehicle that the country’s detractors would use to gain access to the workings of Iran's banking and economic system and its flows of funds.

As a result, Iran is at a crossroads more because of the application of a rules-based international and multilateral system than the coercion of punitive sanctions imposed by a world power. In reality, Iran is emerging as a litmus test of the effectiveness of varying forms of global governance.

If Iran “does not comply with the FATF regulations, the whole Iranian banking system could become thoroughly isolated from the global financial system. This means that it would be almost impossible to transfer the country's oil revenue internationally and even into its national economy,” said political analyst Shahir Shahidsaless.

“And if it does comply, it will face complications such as the creation of an FIU, becoming exposed to sanctions as a result of its chaotic banking system, greater difficulty bypassing US sanctions and, finally, risk getting trapped in allegations of financing terrorism,” he added referring to FATF’s insistence that members create a financial intelligence unit that monitors and reports on the funding of political violence.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Walking a Chinese tightrope: Kazakh quiet diplomacy produces limited results



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

The Kazakh government, in defense of Kazakh and by implication Central Asian behind-closed-doors diplomacy towards China in the face of mounting domestic pressure, has offered a rare public account of its ability to improve conditions for its ethnic kin caught in a crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan’s detailing of its ability to reduce the number of Kazakhs among the reported one million Turkic Muslims incarcerated in re-education camps comes amid a significant expansion of what amounts to the most frontal assault on Islam in recent history.

Kazakh transparency is balanced by the government’s efforts to limit civil society pressure on the governments of both Kazakhstan and China to rollback Chinese efforts to severely restrict religious freedoms and alter the practice of the faith in Xinjiang and elsewhere in the country.

The crackdown that China says has helped it counter militancy and separatism in Xinjiang puts on the spot not only Central Asian nations with their ethnic and cultural links to Xinjiang but also Muslim and Arab countries.

In the most recent development, Chinese authorities have removed public Islamic and Arab symbols in Xinjiang as well as the neighbouring province of Gansu, home to non-Turkic Hui Muslims, a community that long prided itself of having adopted a form of Islam that had ‘Chinese characteristics.’

The moves, part of what China has termed an anti-halalization campaign, threatens to put out of business small entrepreneurs like butchers and restaurant owners that cater to a Muslim community that adheres to Muslim dietary and personal lifestyle laws.

The moves suggest that the crackdown is about more than alleged Uyghur militancy and separatism.

By providing a degree of transparency, the Kazakh government is not only defending itself against domestic criticism but also providing a justification for the Muslim wall of silence that has been only breached intermittently.

On a visit to Beijing last month, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman took that justification to its extreme by seemingly endorsing the crackdown with his statement that China had the right to undertake "anti-terrorism" and "de-extremism" measures.

Addressing parliament this week, Kazakh foreign minister Beibut Atamkulov said the government’s quiet diplomacy had ensured that the “number of Kazakhs in these (re-education) camps decreased by 80 percent.”

It remained unclear whether Mr. Atamkulov was referring to Kazakh and dual nationals or also Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent, He said that China had last year detained 33 dual nationals, 23 of whom were returned to Kazakhstan, suggesting that he was not speaking about the vast majority of Kazakh ethnic kin who have been detained and only have Chinese nationality.

Numbering approximately 1.5 million, ethnic Kazakhs are the second largest ethnic minority in Xinjiang after Uyghurs.

The minister said the government had received more than 1,000 enquiries about people reportedly detained in China and was “working on these issues case by case.”

Mr. Atamkulov’s ministry announced in January that China agreed to allow some 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to renounce their Chinese citizenship and leave the country.

It was not clear whether the Chinese decision applied to former re-education camp inmates or only Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent who qualify for Kazakhstan’s existing repatriation program.

A former re-education camp employee, Sayragul Sauytbay, who fled to Kazakhstan told a Kazakh court last year that she was aware of some 7,5000 Kazakh nationals and Chinese of Kazakh descent being incarcerated.

Atajurt Eriktileri, a Kazakh group that supports relatives of people who have disappeared in Xinjiang, says it has documented more than 10,000 cases of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China. The Xinjiang Victims Database says it has collected some 3,000 testimonies of prisoners and their families, half of which are from ethnic Kazakhs.

Gulzira Auelkhan, a 39-year-old Chinese citizen of Kazakh descent who spent 15 months in two re-education facilities before being transferred to work at a glove factory for a far below minimum wage, credits her husband’s lobbying of the Kazakh government on her behalf and publicizing of her plight for her release and ability to join him in Kazakhstan.

Eager not to provoke the Chinese, Mr. Atamkulov was careful not to criticize the crackdown. He acknowledged, however, that “there are questions regarding people of Islamic faith” but insisted that China has its own internal policy."

Kazakh policy appears to demonstrate the ability of quiet diplomacy to achieve at best limited results. The government’s figures suggest that it is able to intervene only in cases of Kazakh nationals, a small fraction of Kazakhstan’s ethnic kin caught up in the Chinese crackdown.

By responding to cases of Kazakh nationals, China enables the Kazakh government to maintain its public silence in the hope that the government can manage mounting domestic pressure and hold steadfast.

That could prove to be a risky bet.

Ms. Auelkhan is living proof of the risk. She was warned when released that her relatives who remain in Xinjiang, two daughters and her elderly parents, would suffer consequences if she chose to speak out once she was in Kazakhstan.

“I know how awful these camps are, and I want the world to know about them. In Kazakhstan I can speak about this, so I am doing it on behalf of those still trapped in Xinjiang,” she says defiantly.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Monday, March 4, 2019

Turkish-Chinese spat puts Central Asian leaders on the spot



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

A Turkish-Chinese spat as a result of Turkish criticism of China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its strategic but troubled north-western province of Xinjiang complicates efforts by Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states to at best deal quietly behind closed doors with the plight of their citizens and ethnic kin in the People’s Republic.

China’s threat that the Turkish criticism of its massive surveillance and detention campaign, involving the alleged incarceration in re-education camps of up to one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims would have economic consequences and the temporary closure of the Chinese consulate in the Mediterranean port city of Izmir serves as warnings to others in the Muslim world what could happen if they break their silence.

The Chinese effort to get the Muslim and broader international community to maintain silence, if not acquiesce in the crackdown that constitutes the most frontal assault on Islam in recent history, was boosted when Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on a visit to Beijing last month appeared to endorse Chinese policy.

Prince Salman’s endorsement of China's right to undertake "anti-terrorism" and "de-extremism" measures was widely seen as tacit support for the crackdown by the custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

China has denied allegations of widespread abuse of human rights and insisted that the camps are re-education and training facilities that have stopped attacks by Islamist militants and separatists.

The crown prince’s remarks contrasted starkly with the characterization last month of the crackdown by Turkey’s foreign ministry  as an “embarrassment to humanity,” The ministry demanded that Chinese authorities respect the human rights of the Uyghurs and close what it termed “concentration camps.” 

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called twice last week on China to make a distinction between perpetrators of political violence and innocent civilians while insisting that Turkey wished to continue cooperation with the People’s Republic.

“The fact that we have a problem with China on an issue should not necessarily hinder our cooperation on other matters,” Mr. Cavusoglu said.

Turkey is hoping that Chinese investment in nuclear, e-commerce, finance, and infrastructure will narrow its gaping trade deficit with China that last year stood at US$17.8 billion.

That is not how China appeared to envision its future relationship with Turkey.

“There may be disagreements or misunderstandings between friends, but we should solve them through dialogue. Criticising your friend publicly everywhere is not a constructive approach,” said Chinese ambassador to Turkey Deng Li.

“The most important issue between countries is mutual respect. Would you stay friends if your friend criticized you publicly every day?” Mr. Deng asked.


Mr. Deng’s comments were not only designed to whip Turkey back into line but also to prevent Central Asian nations from speaking out despite mounting domestic pressure.

Mr. Deng’s comments reflected greater Chinese intolerance for criticism of its crackdown amid attempts to convince the international community by taking diplomats and journalists on carefully managed tours of Xinjiang that one participant called a “dog and pony show.”

The ambassador’s rings particularly loud in Kazakhstan whose ethnic kin constitute the second largest Muslim community in Xinjiang after the Uyghurs.

A former re-education camp employee, Sayragul Sauytbay, who fled to Kazakhstan told a Kazakh court last year that she was aware of some 7,5000 Kazakh nationals and Chinese of Kazakh descent being incarcerated.

Atajurt Eriktileri, a Kazakh group that supports relatives of people who have disappeared in Xinjiang, says it has documented more than 10,000 cases of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China. The Xinjiang Victims Database says it has collected some 3,000 testimonies of prisoners and their families, half of which are from ethnic Kazakhs.

Askar Azatbek, a former Xinjiang official who became a Kazakh citizen, went missing in December after allegedly having been kidnapped while on the Kazakh side of Khorgos, a free-trade zone on the border with China.

So has Qalymbek Shahman an ethnic Kazakh Xinjiang businessman who was refused entry into Kazakhstan, sent to Uzbekistan and disappeared in Thailand to where he was returned by Uzbek authorities. Mr. Shahman hasn’t been heard from since.

"I wanted to go to Kazakhstan, because China's human rights record was making life intolerable," Mr. Shahman said in a video tape from Tashkent airport before being forced to fly to Thailand, which has a track record of complying with Chinese repatriation requests.

For now, Central Asian leaders are walking a tightrope. Officially, they insist that Xinjiang is a Chinese internal affair. At the same time, the leaders are trying to curb domestic criticism.

Ms. Sauytbay has fired her lawyer after he became unreachable at key moments in her asylum application and encouraged her to not talk about it publicly. “I don’t want to talk…until I have some kind of protection. I’d prefer that protection to come from Kazakhstan, but I might need help from other countries,” Ms. Sautbay said.

Ms. Sautbay is certain to hope that Turkey’s willingness to confront China, if maintained, makes Central Asia’s tightrope act increasingly risky, particularly in an environment in which public criticism of the crackdown, anti-Chinese sentiment and social and economic discontent are meshing.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Once the backbone of Middle Eastern protests, ultras are down but not out



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

Ali Issa Ahmad, a British football fan, who was lingering earlier this year in jail in the United Arab Emirates for wearing a Qatari soccer jersey during the 2019 Asian Cup that Qatar state won.

Mr. Ahmad who potentially could have been sentenced to years in prison for supporting the wrong team in the eyes of the UAE was ultimately released after several days as the UAE sought to avoid the reputational damage his prosecution would have entailed.

Mr. Ahmad’s predicament suggested that the UAE’s stopping Qatari fans from attending recent Asian Cup matches and banning expressions of support for its nemesis because of the rift in the Gulf that has pitted the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia against Qatar is about more than political rivalries between states determined to shape the region in their mould.

Mr. Ahmad’s plight is part of a region-wide effort to ensure that soccer fans who played major roles in recent Middle East history don’t get another opportunity.

Fans were central in the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. They constituted the backbone of initial resistance to the military regime that in 2013 overthrew Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader. And fans led the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests in Turkey and, beyond the Middle East, the 2014 anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine.

The effort to control soccer fans takes on added relevance with mass protests in the greater Middle East occurring in Sudan, Algeria and Jordan while Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev recently replaced his cabinet in a bid to halt mounting social unrest.

The effort takes various forms ranging from banning support in the Gulf for a team to brutal repression and the closure to the public of most domestic matches in Egypt since the 2011 revolt to attempts in Turkey to politically control all fan activity. Like in Turkey, those fans admitted into Egyptian stadia in limited numbers are first politically vetted to ensure that they don’t turn the pitch into a protest venue.

The effort has succeeded to some extent, even if legal measures to ban militant fan groups in Egypt and Turkey failed. The return to stadia of some fans in Egypt suggests that the government feels it has gained the upper hand.

“The Egyptian regime has specific issues with fans organising collectively for football. So if these fans can be depoliticised, they can return to stadiums. This is the real political motivation for allowing fans back into the stadium: the belief that they have successfully depoliticised the game,” said Ziad Akl, an analyst with the Cairo-based Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

The proof is in the pudding. Indications are it hasn’t persuaded militant fans who although a minority were the heartbeat of Egyptian fandom.

“I haven’t been to matches for years, and I’m certainly not going to start now. I’m not stupid enough to give the security services my address, where I work, and my full name. I don’t mind doing this to vote or to get a national ID, but I won’t do this for a football match,” said a member of a Cairo ultras group.


The ultras’ message was that militant soccer fans may be down but are not out and that Egyptian general-turned president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will have to get a grip on simmering discontent by addressing widespread social and economic discontent rather than relying primarily on brutal repression.

To be sure, the differences between 2011 and 2019 could not be starker. Mr. Al-Sisi presides over the worst repression in recent Egyptian history that has targeted even the slightest form of dissent, making toppled leader Hosni Mubarak’s rule look relatively benign.

Nonetheless, militant soccer fans pose enough of a continued threat to prevent the government from fully lifting the ban on spectators attending soccer matches that has been in place for much of the last eight years. The government recently agreed to allow a meagre 5,000 fans per match.

The ban was initially imposed when the popular revolt erupted in 2011 but was lifted once Mr. Mubarak was forced to resign after 30 years in office. It was reintroduced and has been in force uninterrupted since February 2012 when 72 supporters of storied Cairo club Al Ahli were killed in stampede in a Port Said stadium in what many believe was an attempt by the military and law enforcement to cut the ultras down to size that got out of hand.

“No one is excited that the fans are back. People went to the stadiums because of the atmosphere created by ultras - Egyptian football has died with the banning of ultras,” said one of the founding members of Ultras White Nights, the militant support group of Al Ahli arch rival Al Zamalek.

Among Egypt’s estimated 60,000 political prisoners are scores of militant supporters of soccer clubs who were not only prominent in the 2011 uprising but also in subsequent anti-government demonstrations.

The student protests against Mr. Al-Sisi’s coup, that turned the country’s universities into security fortresses, were brutally squashed by law enforcement forces abetted by the adoption of a draconic anti-protest law, tight control of the media, and a crackdown on non-governmental organizations.

The Ultras White Nights and their Al Ahli counterpart, Ultras Ahlawi, officially dissolved themselves in 2018 in a bid to ensure the safety of their members. With continued Ultras White Knights activity on social media, where both groups have/had huge followings, the dissolution was widely seen as tactical and a sign of goodwill.

"We are tired of going around police stations and prisons looking for our comrades. We want things to quieten down with the government, see the detainees go free and the crackdown end,” said former Ultras leader Mohammed Saheel.

The Ultras are desperate and don’t see a bright future. They hope for a reconciliation with the regime to get their fellow members out of prison,” added journalist and soccer fan Mahmoud Mostafa.

The decision to dissolve came in the wake of a statement by the ultras that appealed to Mr. Al-Sisi to initiate a dialogue between the fans and police to iron out their differences. The called for the pardoning of detained militant fans.

The peace offering was a far cry from the ultras’ heyday. To the founders of various groups of ultras in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, the battle for the stadia in the years prior to the 2011 revolts constituted a struggle for public space in a country governed by a regime that tolerated no uncontrolled public spaces.

The ultras constituted the only group that was willing to not only challenge government control of public space but also to put their lives on the line in staking their claim. They derived their title to the stadium from their analysis of the power structure of the sport that positioned ultras as the only true supporters of the club as opposed to a corrupt management that was a pawn of the regime and players who were mercenaries who played for the highest bidder.

That was what attracted thousands of young, under‐educated and un- or under-employed men who joined the ranks of the ultras because the fans were the only organized group that persistently and physically stood up to corrupt and brutal security forces who made their lives difficult in the stadia as well as in the neighbourhoods where they lived.

Members of the ultras and people close to them caution that the Al- Sisi government’s apparent success in whipping the ultras into submission may be temporary.

Many believe that “nothing will happen. Standing up to the regime amounts to suicide. The question is how long that perception will last… Things will eventually burst. When and where nobody knows. But the writing is on the wall,” said a source close to the ultras.

Added a founder of one Egypt’s original ultras groups: “This is a new generation. It’s a generation that can’t be controlled. They don’t read. They believe in action and experience. They have balls. When the opportunity arises, they will do something bigger than we ever did.”

This article is an edited version of a German-language chapter in a book to be published in conjunction with the Macht der Masse – 4e Halbzeit (Power of the Mass – 4th Intermission at the Ludwig Forum Aachen in Germany

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Saudi gas export plans shine new light on efforts to isolate Iran



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

Saudi plans to become a major gas exporter within a decade raise questions about what the real goal of the kingdom’s policy, and by extension that of the United States, is towards Iran.

Officially both Saudi Arabia and the US, which last year withdrew from the 2015 international accord that curbs the Islamic republic’s nuclear program and imposed harsh economic sanctions, are demanding a change of Iran’s regional and defense policies rather than of its regime.

Yet, statements in recent years by some Saudi leaders and US officials as well a string of declarations at the recent US-sponsored Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Stability in the Middle East in Warsaw by officials of the Trump administration as well as Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain suggested that regime change was on their radar.

President Donald J. Trump’s hard-line national security advisor John Bolton, a past advocate of regime change and a covert war to destabilize Iran, concluded an outline on the White House’s official Twitter account of Washington’s long list of grievances and accusations levelled at Iranian leaders by addressing supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, directly: “I don’t think you’ll have too many more anniversaries,” Mr. Bolton said as Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Islamic revolution.

The notion that the real goal of Saudi and US policy is regime change prompted by the sanctions and a destabilization campaign that would foster unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities was bolstered by multiple indicators.

These include statements of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Mr. Bolton before he became Mr. Trump’s advisor; a flow of funds from the kingdom to militant, ultra-conservative anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian madrassas or religious seminaries that dot the Iranian border in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan; US and Saudi support for an exile Iranian group that demands regime change in Tehran; and a string of recent attacks inside Iran.

With Saudi Arabia, however, announcing that it will invest US$150 billion to enable it to export three billion cubic metres of gas a year by 2030, suggests that imminent regime change may not be in the kingdom’s immediate interest.

Viewed through the lens of the timeline of Saudi Arabia’s gas plans, the kingdom is likely to benefit more from an Iran that is isolated and weakened for years to come to give the Saudis the time to get up to speed on gas rather than an Iran that under a new more accommodating government returns to the international fold. A potential destabilization campaign that is low-level and intermittent but not regime threatening would serve that purpose.

It would also extend the window of opportunity on which Saudi Arabia relies to assert regional leadership. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. Punitive economic sanctions, international isolation and domestic turmoil serve to keep Iran weak and unable to leverage its assets.

The emergence of Saudi gas plans appears to put Saudi strategy towards Iran at cross purposes. If Saudi Arabia’s gas-driven interest is prolonged containment of Iran, operations at the Indian-backed Arabian Sea port of Chabahar were believed to have given the effort to achieve a change of Tehran’s regional and defense policy, if not its regime, a sense of urgency.

Pakistani militants reported the flow of Saudi funds to Baloch madrassas at the time that a government-backed Saudi think-tank, the International Institute of Iranian Studies, argued in a study that Chabahar, a mere 70 kilometres up the coast from the Chinese-backed Pakistani port of Gwadar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”

Written by Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, identified as an Iranian political researcher, the study warned that Chabahar posed a threat because it would enable Iran to increase its market share in India for its oil exports at the expense of Saudi Arabia, raise foreign investment in the Islamic republic, increase government revenues, and allow Iran to project power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

Pakistani analysts expect around US$5 billion in Afghan trade to flow through Chabahar after India in December started handling the port’s operations. It could also further strain ties with Pakistan that accuses India of fomenting nationalist unrest in Balochistan. India and Pakistan are on the brink of a  potentially escalating military conflict over Kashmir.

The perceived threat of Chabahar, however, pales against the opportunity that Saudi Arabia’s ability to be a major gas exporter would open up.

In a study published in 2015, energy scholar Micha’el Tanchum suggested that it would be gas supplies from Iran and Turkmenistan, two Caspian Sea states, rather than Saudi oil that would determine which way Eurasia’s future energy architecture tilts: China, the world’s third largest LNG importer, or Europe.

With 24.6 billion cubic metres potentially available for annual piped exports beyond its current supply commitments, Iran, unfettered by sanctions and with no Saudi competition, could emerge as Eurasia’s swing producer, which would significantly enhance its regional clout.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s resignation in recent days, had it been accepted by President Hasan Rouhani, would have amounted to a victory for hardliners and served the interest of the Saudis and their allies.

“Zarif went. We are rid of him,” Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu gloated prematurely on his Farsi-language Twitter account.

The departure of Mr. Zarif, a suave, US-educated moderate who was Iran’s main negotiator of the nuclear accord, would have enhanced the quest of Saudi Arabia and its allies even if their timelines for a change of Iranian policies, if not of the regime, differ.

His continued tenure as foreign minister is likely to encourage Europe, China and Russia in their efforts to salvage the nuclear deal but little to change Saudi or US long-term strategy.

Tweeted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: Zarif “and @HassanRouhani are just front men for a corrupt religious mafia. We know @khamenei_ir makes all final decisions. Our policy is unchanged—the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom