Wednesday, January 14, 2015
By Fintan O'Toole
Saudi Arabia has spent $100 billion in recent decades spreading an extremist ideology.
Imagine an attempt to ban the veneration of the Prophet Muhammad. Go further and imagine a plan to level his tomb in Medina, the second holiest site in Islam, dig up his remains and rebury them in a secret, unmarked grave. Go further again and imagine the actual, systematic destruction, in the early years of Islam, of the tombs of the major figures, including the prophet’s closest relatives.
What lunatic would even imagine going to these extreme lengths to provoke, insult and enrage Muslims? Well, the House of Saud, rulers of Saudi Arabia and guardians of the extremist ideology that fuels much of today’s Islamist terrorism, wouldn’t just imagine them. It does them.
In all the official rhetoric about freedom of speech in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it is notable that there are two words that apparently must not be spoken: Saudi Arabia. Yet it is impossible to understand what is happening now without grasping the fact that the mentality of the killers is not a weird aberration. It is shaped by an official cult propagated by a government western states are anxious to appease at almost any cost. Saudi Arabia has spent about $100 billion in recent decades spreading an extremist ideology, a hybrid of Wahhabism and Salafism, two versions of an Islam supposedly “purified” of its “foreign” influences.
These are not ancient traditions. Wahhabism was born in the 18th century, Salafism in the 19th. And they are not “Islam” – Salafis and Wahhabis make up 3 per cent of Muslims. One of the more bizarre aspects of this ideology is that it involves attacks on things most Muslims regard as sacred. When western liberals wring their hands about giving offence to Muslims by depicting or representing the prophet, they miss the most important point. Cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are vastly less offensive to most Muslims than the destruction of early Islamic tombs by the Saudis. But of course self-appointed defenders of Islamic sensitivities, funded by Saudi largesse, won’t tell you that.
In the last 20 years or so, the Saudis have destroyed hundreds of holy sites in Mecca to clear ground for the construction of hotels and shopping malls and around the Grand Mosque. Much of this is about money, of course, but the destruction is sanctioned by Wahhabi ideology and Saudi history. The Wahhabi sect regarded the veneration of sacred tombs as heretical.
The Wahhabis destroyed dozens of holy tombs in Mecca and Medina when they conquered those cities in 1806 and even attempted to level the prophet’s tomb. They did the same when they reconquered the cities in 1925. This mania continues: just last year, a senior Saudi cleric prepared a detailed plan for the dismantling of the prophet’s tomb. The followers of this ideology have continued to destroy sacred Islamic sites and tombs in Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
How do most Muslims feel about this? Outraged of course. A large survey in 2012 of opinion among Muslims in western Europe, west Africa and Malaysia found 75 per cent of respondents believed the veneration of the graves of Muslim “saints” (ziyarah) was essential or desirable.
For the vast majority of Muslims the running story of sacrilege and provocation is not a few cartoons in secularist European newspapers, it is the Saudi iconoclastic assault on veneration of the prophet.
And yet we never hear about this when the question of “insulting” the prophet or disrespecting the sacred traditions of Islam is raised in Europe. Why? Money. The Saudis have vast amounts of it and use it to fund mosques, schools and Islamic cultural centres all over Europe. A hundred billion dollars buys you a lot of silence. And that silence engenders one of the great hypocrisies of our times: a cartoon of the prophet is a provocation that deserves death but the destruction of his tomb is a religious duty.
This hypocrisy is underwritten by a tacit understanding among western governments: don’t mention the Saudis. The house of Saud runs a vicious tyranny that, among other things, treats women as badly as apartheid South Africa treated blacks. While theCharlie Hebdo killers were going about their ultimate acts of censorship, the Saudi government was savagely lashing the blogger Raif Badawi for daring to promote public debate in his blog.
But the Saudis are “our” Islamist extremists and they’re sending us lots of cheap oil right now. So when we talk about not insulting Muslims, we ignore what most Muslims regard as most offensive. And when we talk about confronting the nihilistic bigotry of extremist Islamism, we ignore the government that is pumping it into our societies through its promotion of a cult that most Muslims reject. It is long past time for democracies to take offence.
Turkey’s main opposition party has called on Islamic countries to adopt secularism in order to end the roots of terrorism, denouncing last week’s deadly Paris attacks and stressing that “killing innocent people has nothing to do with Islam.”
“We are calling on the entire Islamic world: Please adopt secularism. It was described as sacrilege until yesterday, but secularism is the assurance of all faiths; it means no political interventions on people’s religions," main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu told his parliamentary group on Jan. 13.
"Secularism is the antidote to terror,” Kılıçdaroğlu added.
The CHP head said the attacks against satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo revealed once again the importance of secularism, recalling that Turkey’s prominent role among Muslim countries was because of its secular state tradition brought about by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.
“Killing innocent people is not Islam and we strongly condemn this attack, just like the enter contemporary world does,” Kılıçdaroğlu said, stating that Islam is a "religion of peace."
He underlined that the fight against terrorism is no longer an issue countries can deal with alone, but is an international problem requiring co-operation.
Strongly criticizing the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy, Kılıçdaroğlu argued that extremist jihadists have become Turkey’s neighbors as a result of the government’s mistaken policies.
“We warned the government; not once, not twice, not three times: If you follow such policies, terrorist organizations will become your neighbors. If you follow such policies, Turkey will pay the price,” he said, also claiming that Turkey had supplied weapons to these groups along with "main sponsor" Qatar.
The government has long been meddling in the internal policies of Syria, Iraq and Egypt, and this policy has resulted in Turkey's “precious loneliness,” citing some government officials who had used this description while trying to respond to criticism that Turkey was isolated from its allies.
Addressing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he suggested that the government had followed reckless policies in the Middle East.
“He should ask himself: ‘Why am I being criticized?’ This terrorist organization called ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is designated as a terrorist organization everywhere in the world, except by one person, one government and one party: The AKP. Why don’t you designate it as one too?” Kılıçdaroğlu added.
If we can be serious for a moment: The president made an error in judgment by not sending someone with a higher profile than our ambassador to join world leaders Sunday at a solidarity rally in Paris.
I’m not usually mistaken for an Obama advocate, but I’m finding it difficult to embrace the direness of his uncharacteristic disobedience to stagecraft. The lead headline in Monday’s New York Daily News instructed the president: “You let the world down.”
Really? The United States has been leading the world in the fight against terror for well over a decade, and the president let down the world by not appearing at a rally?
Don’t get me wrong. The rally was important. Beautiful and profound, it was a consummate expression of the modern world’s commitment to end the madness of terrorism. I loved every moment of it and, as both a reporter and a member of the human race, which are not always mutually exclusive, I longed to be there.
I also would have enjoyed seeing our president among the 44 leaders who attended. But who really doubts the United States’ commitment to fighting terrorism or supporting the French in this moment of crisis? Certainly not the French. Not the terrorists. And certainly not our military men and women who have sacrificed blood and limb in the fight.
Thus, it seems we might reserve our high dudgeon for the murderous actors rather than the administration’s decision to send only U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley. Poor Hartley. She has been so minimized by President Obama’s critics that chopped liver sneers with contempt.
Realistically, it is entirely possible that Obama’s advisers considered the terrorist threat in France sufficient to keep him away — not out of fear or lack of courage, as some commenters have suggested, but out of an abundance of caution. As important as all leaders are in the conduct of man’s moment on the planet, none is as important to the enemies of freedom as the president of the United States.
Obama the man may not be able to alter the position of stars or rewind the tides, but Obama the president can move crowds — or inspire havoc. All it takes is just one of the thousands of jihadists believed to be living in France to pull a stunt with the U.S. president in attendance and the world teeters.
Moreover, anyone who has traveled with a president knows that preparations are elaborate and time-intensive. Dozens upon dozens of people work weeks or months in advance to plan and arrange such an expedition, coordinating security in the host country, mapping routes and timing details to the minute.
One reporter in Monday’s White House news briefing pointed out that Obama was able to get to Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on short notice. Why not Paris? Press secretary Josh Earnest responded that the Mandela memorial plans had been in the works for years. Spoiler alert: Reporters write important people’s obituaries long before those people die, as well.
More to the point, South Africa hadn’t just suffered a terrorist attack. In fact, it was such a relaxed occasion that one would have been comfortable taking selfies in the middle of the ceremony.
In the grand scheme of things, Obama’s calculation may be unpopular but was probably the right one. No disrespect to France’s ability to handle security around an enormous crowd while still reeling from a terrorist attack, but Obama’s presence unquestionably would have added several more layers of concern, logistical headaches and, not inconceivably, imposed greater risk for the throng.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in Paris at the time, would not have been so problematic. Or Vice President Biden could have made the trip. In hindsight, one of them should have filled the void. But beyond the historic optics, there was no rational reason to expect the president to be there. In fact, one could reasonably argue that his going would have been a dereliction of duty, given the potential risks.
What France and other nations need from us is support, sympathy and, most of all, intelligence. Symbolic gestures have their place in diplomacy and war, but sometimes the wiser act is playing it safe.
American military interventions in recent times, whether in Vietnam, Somalia, Lebanon, Libya or Iraq, have undermined regional stability and left deep scars on the body politic of the affected countries. The society and body politic of the US itself has felt the tremors of these misadventures.
American military intervention in Afghanistan, code-named Operation Enduring Freedom, commenced in the aftermath of 9/11. Its combat role ended 13 years later, on December 31, 2014.
The Americans tried to win cheaply, outsourcing many operations to the erstwhile Northern Alliance.
This led to adversaries comprising the Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban, the Al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden, and thousands of Islamic radicals from the Arab world, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China’s Xinjiang Province and ISI-linked Pakistani terrorist groups, escaping across the Durand Line, to safe havens under ISI protection, in Pakistan.
The US has paid a heavy price for this folly. Some 2,200 of its soldiers were killed in combat; it suffered its heaviest losses in the last four years after it became evident that it was pulling out.
As the US was winding down its military presence and transferring combat responsibilities to the Afghan National Army (ANA), an emboldened Taliban and its Chechen, Uzbek, Uighur and Turkmen allies have emerged from their Pakistani safe havens. In the subsequent fighting, 4,600 Afghan soldiers were killed in combat in 2014 alone. The Afghan army cannot, obviously, afford to sustain such heavy casualties continuously, if morale is to be sustained.
Trouble in northern Afghanistan
Apart from what is happening in southern Afghanistan, Taliban-affiliated groups are now increasing their activities in northern Afghanistan, along its borders with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China’s Xinjiang Province. Afghanistan’s Northern Provinces such as Kunduz, Faryab and Takhar, have seen increased attacks by Taliban allies from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
American forces are scheduled to be halved in 2015 and reduced to a token presence, just sufficient to protect American diplomatic missions, by the end of 2016. Not surprisingly, President Ashraf Ghani has asked the US to review its withdrawal schedule.
Afghanistan’s Southern Provinces, bordering the disputed Durand Line with Pakistan, are increasingly ungovernable.
Following General Raheel Shareef’s assault on Pashtun tribals in Pakistan’s tribal areas, over one million Pashtun tribals have fled their homes in Pakistan, with an estimated 250,000 fleeing into neighbouring Afghanistan.
If Mullah Omar, his Taliban associates and Sirajuddin Haqqani’s terrorist outfit are finding safe havens in Pakistan, Mullah Fazlullah and his followers in the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) appear to have disappeared into the wilderness, in Afghanistan.Mullah Omar going strong
Senator Kerry may issue a waiver on legislative requirements to enable the flow of aid to Pakistan. The reality however, is that even after the Peshawar massacre of schoolchildren, terrorist groups like the Haqqani network, the Jaish e Mohammed and the Lashkar e taiba receive safe haven and support in Pakistan.
Despite American hopes of a change of heart in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the reality is that Mullah Omar is still leading the Afghan Taliban from a safe house in Karachi.
The day-to-day conduct of operations in Afghanistan have reportedly been transferred by the ISI to one of his deputies, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. Taliban attacks within Afghanistan reached unprecedented levels in 2014.
Moreover, while Washington proclaims that any process of reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government will be “Afghan-led and Afghan-driven”, Rawalpindi will ensure that the entire ‘reconciliation’ process is controlled and driven by the ISI.
China, now endorsed by the US as the new Good Samaritan to facilitate the ‘reconciliation’, has maintained ISI-facilitated links with Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura. Beijing will naturally endorse the wishes of its all-weather friend Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours who are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), to which India was recently admitted, can expect little from this organisation to deal effectively with their concerns.
China has been now joined by Pakistan, as a member of the SCO. Given its growing economic woes and sanctions imposed by the US and its allies, Russia will have little choice but to fall in line with China, even though its special envoy Zamir Kabulov has expressed Moscow’s readiness to supply weapons to Kabul. Past Russian policy has been to supply weapons to Kabul on strictly commercial terms.Patchwork coalition
Adding to the prevailing uncertainty, is the fact that Afghanistan is today ruled not by the provisions of its constitution, but by a patchwork coalition of two formerly implacable political foes, President Ashraf Ghani and ‘Chief Executive’ Abdullah Abdullah.
The political gridlock in Kabul is tight. After the presidential elections, which were internationally regarded as neither free nor fair, the ruling duo, stitched together by Senator John Kerry, has been unable to agree even on the names of any new ministers. India obviously cannot countenance the return of an ISI-backed Taliban order in Afghanistan.
The US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement envisages the possibility of a US military presence “until the end of 2024 and beyond”.
Will it, however, be realistic to expect a war-weary US and its Nato partners -- now heavily focused on combating ISIL and similar radical groups across the Islamic World ranging from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Lebanon, to Somalia and Nigeria -- to continue to bail out a politically unstable Afghanistan?
Will the US and its allies provide the Kabul government with adequate air support, weapons and financial assistance, amounting to between $ 5-10 billion annually?
These are realities we cannot gloss over.
The security of our nationals and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan will require constant attention. Work on prestige projects such as the Salma Dam and the Afghan parliament will need to be expeditiously completed.
Cooperation with Iran on the Chabahar Port and establishing strategic connectivity to Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbours will have to be strengthened. Navigating on the road ahead is going to be tough.