Saturday, May 14, 2016

Saudi Arabian Nationalism, Religion and Yemen War

A mix of dynastic and Salafist nationalism is on the rise in Saudi Arabia. Intervention in the Yemeni Civil War (named the 'Decisive Storm') has the intended rally around the flag effect. Simeon Kerr wrote about it in the Financial Times in May 2015:

Lines of green Saudi flags hang proudly along Riyadh’s wide highways while screens around the capital broadcast footage on a loop of warplanes flying into combat and massive explosions.Local companies have taken out giant billboards pledging allegiance to the “decisive and determined” King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, while ordinary Saudis have taken to social media to show their support for the new king and the county’s military campaign in Yemen.An unprecedented jingoism — hidden for decades — has swept through Saudi Arabia since King Salman ascended to the throne in January and the launch in March of the aerial campaign against Shia Houthi rebels.Although the air strikes have raised international concern and heightened tensions with Iran, its rival for regional dominance, they have been cheered in Saudi by an increasingly nationalist and sectarian sentiment.

Saudi cartoon showing Iranian cleric being hit by a missile on which Decisive Storm (عاصفة الحزم) is visible.


Source: Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, March 27, 2015

The royalists, nationalists, and the servile media also have a young, tall, dark and handsome prince to gush about. In one year, Deputy Crown Prince and Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman has risen from being one of the dozens of grandsons of King Abdul Aziz al-Saud (the founder of Saudi Arabia) to arguably the most powerful man in the kingdom. Prince Mohammad is currently holding three posts:
  • He is the head of the Royal Court, meaning he is not only King Salman's son but also his closest advisor; 
  • He is the Defense Minister and as Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir is not a royal, Prince Mohammad is more powerful of the two men leading Saudi foreign engagements;
  • He is the key economic decision-maker in Saudi Arabia. He chairs the Council of Economic Affairs and Development, the main decision-making body on economic and financial issues in Saudi Arabia. In his capacity as the lead economic player, Prince Mohammad announced his plans for Saudi economy and for the Aramco (the national energy company that drives the Saudi economy) in January 2016. In March 2016, he announced the Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030
For a country that has been ruled by septuagenarians and octogenarians for decades, it's unprecedented for a thirty-year old to hold such power. His youth and action-oriented leadership have made him popular but many are wary of such concentration of power.


Is Saudi nationalism moving away from Salafism or is Salafism becoming more entrenched in the Saudi nationalism under King Salman?

There is evidence to support both sides of the argument. Since the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia has promoted a more dynastic and ecumenical religious nationalism and has tried to move away from Salafi nationalism. Official media and educational and cultural institutions have focused more on the exceptionalism of Saudi land and royal family than on the exceptionalism of Salafism. Some of the measures taken are given below:

  • A cult of King Abdul Aziz has been cultivated;
  • King Abdullah curtailed the power of Salafi clerics and religious police; 
  • National museum was founded in Riyadh;
  • A new subject 'national education' was introduced in the schools (Saudi Arabia in Transition 2015, page 4-5);
  • The first co-educational university in Saudi Arabia was established in 2009 by King Abdullah. He gave it his own name (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) and quashed criticism of Salafi critics;
  • In the early 2000s, Saudi Royals for the first time made some non-Salafi Sunnis and Shias (and women) included in the Shura Council, the highest advisory body. King Abdullah also started a dialogue with the Shiites, who are ten percent of Saudi population and more crucially are a majority in the oil-rich Eastern province;
  • Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 announced recently called for 'a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method.' It declared that the 'values of moderation, tolerance, excellence, discipline, equity, and transparency will be the bedrock of our success.' Emphasis on toleration and moderation show a change of focus and decrease in the power of Salafi religious establishment;
  • Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 also had good news for women. It asserted that 'Saudi women are yet another great asset. With over 50 percent of our university graduates being female, we will continue to develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.' This was another defeat of Salafi clerics who want women to stay at home;
  • The Saudi Arabian leadership has repeatedly said that Yemeni intervention was not  Salafi/Sunni fight with Shi'ism. They have clarified that it was a fight against Iran, which was trying to control the Middle East and carving a new Persian Empire. They have also condemned the sectarian rhetoric of the Daesh (Islamic State), which is mainly Salafi, and called for unity of all Muslims.


Abdullah Hamidaddin, a scholar, has also argued in Al-Arabia that the power of (Salafi) clerics is on the wane in Saudi Arabia:

In recent weeks, the Saudi government has been sending a clear message to its people and the world that economic development and religious extremism cannot coexist. This message is in line with the launch of Saudi Vision 2030, which depends on a social vibrancy that is antithetical to extreme religious values. Of course, people have the right to be religious, but religious institutions - formal and informal - shouldn't be allowed to be above the law to forcefully impose or propagate their views. 
Many analysts consider the recent government announcement to limit the ability of the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" which is known in many foreign media outlets as "religious police,” to arrest and interrogate a significant move. But a much more important decision was the appointment during last week’s cabinet reshuffle of Sulaiman Aba al-Khayl as president of the University of Imam Mohammad bin Saud. I personally believe this cements the government’s focus to work closely with the religious institution for the greater good. His appointment came as a pleasant surprise to moderates and reformers. The university had been considered by some that it promotes nationally and internationally hardline views.

However, there is also evidence of the rise in Salafi nationalism after the ascendance of King Salman and Yemeni intervention. While Saudi government has tried to avoid stroking anti-Shia hatred, many official clerics and others people linked with the government have publicly portrayed Yemen and Syrian civil wars as a conflict between real Islam (Salafism/Sunnism) and false Islam (Shiism) and resorted to scaremongering after the start of Saudi campaign against Yemeni Houthis. Angus Mcdowall of Reuters gave examples of such instances:

"If they (Shi'ites) manage to win and control the state, they ravage Sunnis: clerics, women, children, the rulers and the ruled. They attack just like the lion attacks his prey," said Farid al-Ghamdi, a cleric at Mecca's Umm al-Qura seminary in a sermon visible on YouTube...."Decisive Storm came to sever any ambition of the Safavids to besiege Muslims in their own homes," wrote cleric Saad al-Breik to his 1.15 million Twitter followers after the air strikes began last month. 
That kind of scare-mongering has been evident in the Saudi press as well. A report in the daily al-Medina newspaper last week cited "military experts" as saying the Houthis wanted to turn Yemen's capital Sanaa into "an entirely Shi'ite city by 2017" and that the air strikes would thwart "this Iranian plan"....

An analysis of over seven million Arabic tweets from February to August 2015 done by Alexandra Siegel, a PhD student at the New York University showed that while both sides are using social media for hate speech, such tweets from Saudi Arabia are much more common (although it might be said that this conclusion would have something to do with only looking at Arabic tweets).

In the years following the escalation of the Syrian civil war, six main derogatory terms have been frequently used to disparage Shia Muslims online: rafidha (rejectionist), Hizb al-Shaytan (party of the devil), Hizb al-Lat (party of Lat), Majus (Magianism or Zoroastrianism), Nusayri (followers of Nusayr), and Safawi (Safavid). Rafidha refers to Twelver Shias, the largest of the Shia sects, and implies that they have rejected “true” Islam as they allegedly do not recognize Abu Bakr, the first caliph, and his successors as having been legitimate rulers after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. For example, Salafi cleric Abdulaziz al-Tarifi tweeted to his approximately 800,000 followers in February, “Jews and Christians did not used to collude with the rafidhaas they do today in this country and every country.

The killing of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr was considered as another sign of anti-Shiite bias though the Saudi government pointed out that dozens of Sunni terrorists were also executed on the same day as Sheikh Nimr and claimed that executions were against terrorism, not against Shia or Shiaism. Furthermore, the coalition of Muslim countries that was announced in December 2015 to fight terrorism does not have one Shia-ruled Muslim country as its members. Bahrain is the only Shia-majority country that is a member of the coalition but it is ruled by a Sunni monarchy. So, it appears that not only Iran but all Shia-ruled countries (Iraq and Lebanon) were excluded from this alliance.

Frederic Wehrey is not very hopeful of future and considers that Salafism has increased its role in Saudi nationalism under King Salman  (Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy, p-111-12)

At its core, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains an authoritarian state with a ruling family wedded to monarchical privilege and backed by a deeply anti-liberal and sectarian religious establishment. If anything, it appears to be becoming more so under King Salman. In contrast to King Abdullah, Salman has been wooing the Kingdom’s religiously conservative base of power to shore up public support for his domestic policies and to demonize Iran in the region. The result has been a rollback of Abdullah’s limited reforms and a new, more virulent Sunni-based nationalism. 





Saturday, May 7, 2016

Growing Jewish Nationalism in Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the pushback

Scholars have been warning about the rising influence of the religious nationalists in the IDF. Not only the number of religious nationalists (or national-religious or religious Zionists as they are called in Israel) is rising in the IDF but they are also serving in more combat roles and rising in ranks. Conversely, the secular Israelis that had been the backbone of the IDF since the 1940s have been reluctant to serve after their mandatory military service in the IDF. Yagil Levy, in his 2014 article in Armed Forces and Society Journal, wrote about the theocratization of the IDF. He gives four reasons why there has been a significant increase in religious influence in the Israeli military:
At the center of this process stands the national-religious sector, which has significantly upgraded its presence in the ranks since the late 1970s. It is argued that four integrated and cumulative processes gradually generated this shift toward the theocratization of the Israeli military: (1) the crafting of institutional arrangements that enable the service of religious soldiers, thereby (2) creating a critical mass of religious soldiers in many combat units, consequently (3) restricting the military command’s Intra-organizational autonomy visa`- vis the religious sector, and paving the road to (4) restricting the Israel Defense Forces autonomy in deploying forces in politically disputable missions.
A Christian Science Monitor report by Christa Bryant in 2015 highlighted the same issue. 
In the early 1990s,...Orthodox men accounted for 2.5 percent of graduates of infantry officer training courses; since then, it’s grown to more than 25 percent, according to a 2013 book. In some combat units, they make up as much as 50 percent of new officers – roughly quadruple their share of Israel’s population. The upward trend, coupled with a parallel decline in the number of combat soldiers and officers coming from secular families, is dramatically changing the face of the IDF. Many Israelis respect religious Zionists like Fund – Orthodox Jews who see the state as playing a part in the prophesied redemption of Israel ­– for their willingness to defend the nation.
But some worry that their worldview could change the character not only of the army – traditionally a secular “people’s army,” where youngsters of all stripes forged lasting bonds during their mandatory two- to three-year service – but the state of Israel itself. One of the most cited concerns is that if Israel agreed to a peace deal with Palestinians, the outsized influence of religious soldiers could complicate the IDF’s evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
An investigative report by Reuters in April 2016 also points towards the same phenomenon and argues that religious nationalists have now reached the highest echelons of Israel's powerful security sector:
The community, sometimes referred to as the ‘national religious’, has increased its presence in both government and the civil service. This year, for the first time ever, the heads of the national police, the Mossad spy agency and the Shin Bet domestic security service are all Religious-Zionists.
Nowhere, though, has the shift been more pronounced than in the military. Most soldiers in the Israeli army are secular or observant Jews, though Druze and Bedouin Arab citizens serve as well. But over the past two decades, academic studies show, the number of Religious-Zionist officers in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has seen a huge increase. The military has also felt the growing influence of rabbis who have introduced matters of faith and politics to the battlefield.
Source: Reuter's Report

The author of the Reuter's report, Maayan Lubell, however, argues that there are signs of pushback from the secular decision-makers that are still a majority in both civilian and security sectors of Israel. Their criticisms are mainly focused on the power of the Military Rabbinate and it's Jewish Awareness Branch that have tried relentlessly, according to many secular Jews, to promote a right-wing, ideological, and religious agenda and to make the IDF an army with a religious mission, instead of a national mission. In 2012, the State Comptroller of Israel criticized the pamphlets circulated among soldiers by the Rabbinate during the 2008-09 Gaza war in which it was written that 'not one millimeter' of land should be ceded to the Palestinians and cruelty to the Palestinians was sometimes necessary. In January 2016, the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot announced he would remove the Jewish Awareness Branch from the Military Rabbinate. In his letter to the IDF officers, he argued that a military divided over religion and politics could hardly fulfill its mission:
The IDF is the people’s army and includes a wide spectrum of Israeli society...A change is needed with the aim of keeping the IDF a stately army in a democratic country, nurturing that which unites its soldiers.
His decision was severely criticized by the religious nationalists, who are a majority in the current ruling coalition, and they planned to reverse it. More recently, Israel's deputy military chief Major-General Yair Golan’s Holocaust memorial speech touched a nerve when compared behavior of some of the Israelis to the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s:
If there’s something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance it’s the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then - 70, 80 and 90 years ago - and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016.
This was in reference to the killing of an incapacitated Palestinian by an Israeli soldier in cold blood in Hebron in March 2016. However, General Yair was castigated for making this comparison and in the end, because of the political power of the religious nationalists, the IDF had to issue a clarification.

Can the secular Israelis stop the growing Judaization/theocratization of the IDF? The jury is still out but this will surely be the last stand of the secular Israelis.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Bible as Tennessee's Official book: Religious symbolism and the US Constitution

The United States is the only country in the world which neither restricts/regulates the practicing of minority or majority religions nor passes any religious legislation, proving that the church-state relationship in the US is unique in the world. However, as argued in this blog previously, this was not always the case. Religion and state were intertwined for decades at the sub-national level. For example, several US states had religious tests for public office (See American Secularism: A historical view of separation of the Church and the State in the US). Though attempts to link majority religion (Protestantism or Christianity) to the state never stopped in the US, one can detect a new enthusiasm to subvert religious neutrality enshrined in the US Constitution recently.  

On April 14th, 2016, Tennessee Governor vetoed the bill to make Bible the official book of the state. Governor Bill Haslam wrote in a letter to the Beth Harwell, speaker of the statehouse, in which he rejected the arguments of the bill sponsors:

As you know, last year the Attorney General opined that designating The Holy Bible as the official state book of Tennessee would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution and Article 1, § 3, of the Tennessee Constitution which provides that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."
In addition to the constitutional issues with the bill, my personal feeling is that this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text. If we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, then we shouldn’t be recognizing it only as a book of historical and economic significance. If we are recognizing the Bible as a sacred text, then we are violating the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Tennessee by designating it as the official state book. Our founders recognized that when the church and state were combined, it was the church that suffered in the long run. 
I strongly disagree with those who are trying to drive religion out of the public square. All of us should and must bring our deepest beliefs to the places we are called, including governmental service. Men and women motivated by faith have every right and obligation to bring their belief and commitment to the public debate. However, that is very different from the governmental establishment of religion that our founders warned against and our Constitution prohibits.

Is this bill had passed, Tennessee would have been the first state to have the Bible as the official state book. Even the veto was an achievement for bill's sponsors as, in 2015, a similar bill was passed by the House by failed to get the approval of the majority of Tennessee senators. The sponsors of the bill intend to press on and try to override the governor's veto, which only require a simple majority in both houses.



While arguments of those opposing the bill are well known and ably and succinctly presented by the Governor, it is interesting to take a look at the arguments of the bill supporters.

Roger Gannam, senior litigation counsel for Liberty Counsel, argued:

The government’s adoption of the Bible as the state book would not be an endorsement of Christianity or Judaism or the contents of the book as religion,” Gannam said. “But certainly could have adopted the Bible as a proper recognition of the influence it had on the foundations of Tennessee law and political thought.

Gannam said that Haslam’s reasoning was based on an “erroneous interpretation of the Constitution.” and called the governor’s veto disappointing. Liberty Counsel offered its legal services free of charge if the bill/law was challenged in courts.

David Fowler, a former Tennessee state senator and president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT), gave four reasons why recognizing the Holy Bible as official state book is important:
  • Having a state book is not unconstitutional and no book is more worthy of being Tennessee's state book than the Holy Bible: Regarding the constitutional debate, we need to begin with the acknowledgment there is nothing unconstitutional about having a state book. And as Rep. Matthew Hill said, if we’re going to have a state book, what other book could we name that has had the kind of historical, practical, and economic impact as that of the Bible? There is none.
  • We should be neutral to religion, not hostile to religion: But if the constitutional point is that no religious text can even be entered into the debate, then I submit that we are not being neutral on the issue of religion. Rather, we are advancing secularism at the expense of religion. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart remarked in a different Establishment Clause context: "[A] refusal to permit religious exercises [in schools] thus is … not … the realization of state neutrality, but rather … the establishment of a religion of secularism, or at least, … governmental support of the beliefs of those who think that religious exercises should be conducted only in private."
  • The objective of Establishment Clause was not to divorce religion from the public affairs: Further, from a constitutional perspective, neither the “separation of church and state” referenced in a letter by Thomas Jefferson (and not found in the Constitution) nor the Establishment Clause were ever intended to divorce religion or its influence from the public square. As Supreme Court Justice, Harvard law professor, and author of the first comprehensive treatise on the Constitution, Joseph Story, wrote in 1833: "The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government."
  • Bible is an important part of our heritage and forgetting one's heritage makes one gullible: Karl Marx once said, “A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.” Mr. Marx was merely reflecting what God knew was true about us. It is why He constantly urged His people to set up memorials; they needed to remember who they were. Whether one was “right” or “wrong” before God in supporting or opposing the “Bible bill” I’ll leave for others to debate, but I am fully persuaded of this: there are many who would have us remove from our public life and the public square any recognition of our religious heritage. And perhaps they do so for the very reason given by Mr. Marx – it makes it easier for them to persuade us to do things that, in a different generation, knowing who we were, we would not do.

Some constitutional experts have contended that such bills are largely symbolic (having no effect on the lives of the people or on how the government was run) and, therefore, it would be difficult to challenge them and to declare them unconstitutional. For example, Douglas Laycock, Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and a leading scholar in the areas of religious liberty, has argued:

Judges are likely to think that this is de minimis - to minor to care about. They don't tell the president that he can't issue Thanksgiving proclamations or host a national prayer breakfast, and judges are likely to view this the same way.

Keith Werhan, a constitutional law expert at Tulane University Law School, agreed, 

You can promote religion so long as it doesn't rise to the level of establishing a church...  Throughout history, the Supreme Court has not gotten worked about these types of things.

As discussed above, the fight for making bible as the state's official book of Tennessee is by no means over. The sponsors of the bill will try to override the veto next week. Similar bills have also been presented in other Southern states. The LA Times reported in January 2016 that two Democratic members of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Tom Miles and Michael Evans, were proposing a bill to make the Bible the official state book of Mississippi. In Louisiana, a similar bill was presented in 2014 but was later withdrawn by the sponsor, Rep. Thomas Carmody. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Bharat mata ki jai (Victory for/to Mother India)

Is it necessary to chant 'Bharat Mata ki Jai'? Is it a national slogan or a Hindu slogan? Are the people who refuse to say this slogan anti-India or anti-national or traitors? A new controversy is raging across India.

It all started when on March 3rd, (2016) Mohan Bhagwat, the chief (Sarsanghchalak) of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), spoke at an award ceremony at the RSS headquarters in Reshimbagh. During the speech, he said that the Indian youth should be taught to say `Bharat Mata Ki Jai' as some forces are telling the youth not to say nationalist slogans. This part of his speech was possibly linked to the JNU controversy, however, he did not make any direct reference to it.

Bhagwat's speech did not garner much attention until Asaduddin Owaisi referred to it in his speech in Maharastra on March 14th. Owaisi is the President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and a three-term member of the lower house of the Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) from Hyderabad. At a rally, he said that he would not chant the slogan even if Bhagwat put a knife to his throat as nowhere in the Constitution it is written that one should say Bharat Mata ki Jai. He said that he would say 'Jai Hind' (Victory to Hind) but not Bharat Mata ki Jai.

Two days later, on March 16, a budget debate skirmish in the Maharastra Assembly led Waris Pathan, a member of Owaisi's party and an MLA from Mumbai, to say that he would say 'Jai Hind' but not say 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' even at the cost of his life. The Maharashtra Assembly, where Hindu nationalists (BJP and Shiv Sena) are in the majority,  then unanimously suspended him for disrespecting the country. Shortly after his suspension, Pathan said to the reporters that he did not disrespect India:

I am proud of having been born in this country and god willing will be buried in the very earth here. I have not disrespected my country. And I cannot think of doing so. Jai Hind. Jai Bharat. Jai Maharashtra.
On March 17, the Shiv Sena's mouthpiece Saamana wrote a strongly-worded editorial in which it recommended not only revoking the citizenship of those who refuse to chant the slogan but also beheading of their heads:

Owaisi has insulted Bharat Mata. Now, Muslims should come out in opposition to Owaisi and hail Bharat Mata...Bharat Mata ki jai is a matter of inspiration and devotion to the country. Considerations of caste and religion should not matter on such issues...Owaisi has said that even if someone puts a knife to his throat, he would not say 'Bharat Mata ki Jai.'...Such people's heads should be cut off.

Since then, many other people have commented on this issue. Some have supported Owaisi's stance; others have criticised him but said that there should be no compulsion. If chanting a slogan cannot make a person a patriot, not chanting will not make her a traitor. A timeline of the controversy till April 5th can be seen here.

Why such opposition to 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' while there is universal acceptance for 'Jai Hind'? Are they not convey the same emotion? Some have argued that Bharat Mata slogan is linked with Hindu nationalism from the early twentieth century. A. G. Noorani explains in an article how India as mata/goddess Kali or Durga is fundamental to Hindutva. 

This is the record on “Bharat Mata”. When the upstarts of the BJP tell us that it is “anti-national” not to proclaim it, it is because they do not bear loyalty to Indian nationalism, but to Hindu nationalism or Hindutva.


Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury,  a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament, however, castigated the politicians of all sides for using this Indian battle cry (Bharat Mata ki Jai) for political expediency and electoral gains:

However, in the entirely different world of the Indian Army, Bharat Mata ki Jai is a traditional, multi-faith battlecry, where soldiers of all denominations place their country before their religion. Roared through many voices, Bharat Mata ki Jai has sustained the Indian soldier on many battlefields as he closed with the enemy for the final reckoning ... But now, with elections to many state Assemblies underway, the battlecry of the warrior has been misappropriated by the political demagogues and turned into street slogans by the politician. These are the enemies within the gates whom the soldier may have to deal with if and when called upon to do so.