Trump’s Jerusalem decision– An Undeniably Reckless Move

December 11, 2017

Trump’s Jerusalem decision– An Undeniably Reckless Move

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Leaders of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the nation’s largest pro-Israel organization, welcomed Pres. Donald Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his announcement that the US will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City.With more than 3.8 million members, CUFI is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States and one of the leading Christian grassroots movements in the world. CUFI spans all fifty states and reaches millions with its message. Each year CUFI holds hundreds of pro-Israel events in cities around the country. And each July, thousands of pro-Israel Christians gather in Washington, D.C. to participate in the CUFI Washington Summit and make their voices heard in support of Israel and the Jewish people.


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Donald Trump announced recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, igniting new levels of violence throughout the Middle East

The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is an undeniably reckless move that has the potential to ignite new levels of violence throughout the region. It’s also an obvious gift to Trump’s right-wing Zionist fans and a reminder that blind support for Israel is now central to far-right American identity.

This much should be clear to anyone who follows political dynamics both in the Middle East and here at home. Unfortunately, the predictable hand-wringing from liberals in response to the Jerusalem decision runs the risk of reinforcing some of the most damaging and self-serving myths about what is happening on the ground in Palestine/Israel.

The first of these myths concerns the supposed “status quo” in Jerusalem and throughout Palestine/Israel. Immediately after the announcement of Trump’s decision, we heard a chorus of voices lamenting that the change in U.S. policy would upset the delicate status quo in Jerusalem.

As critics of U.S. policy in the region have been saying literally for decades, however, the status quo itself is deeply unjust. Israel has been solidifying its colonization of Jerusalem through blatant land grabs and a wide range of administrative measures designed to push out Palestinians, all backed by broad, bipartisan support from Washington.

The reality in Jerusalem is the same as the reality throughout Palestine/Israel: an apartheid reality defined by the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land and the denial of equal rights to Palestinians. Far from changing that reality, Trump’s decision simply brings it more into the open.

The second myth concerns the so-called “peace process.” While many have responded to Trump’s decision by issuing dire warnings that the decision will kill any hope of a negotiated, “two-state solution,” the reality is that this “solution” has been dead for decades.

The search for “peace” has served as a cover under which Israel has been able to solidify its colonial control over the territory, rendering impossible the dream of Palestinian national sovereignty.

In that sense, once again we can view Trump’s decision as simply making visible what policy elites in Washington and elsewhere have long been afraid to say: that the most important “process” on the ground is a colonization process, and that the U.S. has chosen to side with the colonizer.

As Mouin Rabbani, a respected Middle East analyst recently noted, “American recognition of Israel sovereignty in Jerusalem would send an unmistakable signal that Washington rejects not only the two-state settlement paradigm but also the Palestinian right to national self-determination in favour of permanent Israeli domination and Palestinian dispossession.”

In light of this, we would do well to recognize that while the Trump decision is potentially disastrous in its potential to provoke wider outbreaks of regional violence, it is also useful in the sense that it lays bare the core elements of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

How should progressives respond to the space that has been opened up by this decision? A good place to start is by interrogating the role of the Democratic Party establishment in propping up the “status quo” and “peace process” myths and, by extension, the Israeli colonial project. It’s worth remembering here that as The Hill noted, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been quite open about his role in pushing Trump to give Israel what it wants on Jerusalem.

Schumer may still believe that support for Israel is a winning strategy, but his base is increasingly moving in a different direction. As information about Israeli colonization has become more widely available and shared, especially among young people, more and more progressive voters have decided that being on the side of justice means refusing to go along with what Israel is doing. The recent letter signed by ten Democratic senators calling on Israel to stop the planned demolition of two Palestinian and Bedouin towns is an indication of how the political ground is shifting.

What this signals is that the current political moment offers to Democrats an opportunity to build a policy that is reality-based and justice-based rather than one that is based on denial and mythology.

In order to do this, it won’t be enough simply to pine for a return to the days before Trump’s decision. That makes no more sense than responding to the outrages of the Trump administration by longing for the days of supposedly “sensible” conservatives like Mitt Romney or George W. Bush. To participate in the rehabilitation of pre-Trump Republicans is to acquiesce to the rightward shift of the entire political spectrum. To prop up the myth of the “peace process” and the “two-state solution” in Palestine/Israel is to acquiesce to the normalization of ethnic cleansing and the mass violation of Palestinian rights.

There is a better path forward for progressives: insisting on justice as the compass guiding our political struggles. Palestinians are not going to get justice from Donald Trump — but they weren’t going to get it from Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton either. The entire U.S. political class needs to be pushed from below on this and many other issues, and it is our job to keep applying the pressure.

John Collins, Ph.D., is a professor of global studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He is author of “Global Palestine,” and co-author of “Social and Cultural Foundations of Global Studies.” 

Cambodia: Democracy Update

December 9, 2017

Cambodia: Democracy Update

by Sorpong Peou

In recent months, the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken stronger steps to guarantee a win in the national election scheduled for July 2018. Hun Sen’s objective is simple — to prevent his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) from losing power by whatever means necessary.

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Prime Minister HE Samdech Techo Hun Sen– sustaining economic economic growth and maintaining national security. World Bank October 2017 Update is positive

Hun Sen has relied on a combination of three tactics — coercion, co-option and control — to maintain his domination over Cambodia’s politics in the name of protecting national security. Those who cannot be co-opted into the CPP’s sphere through material rewards can be coerced into submission, and those who do submit are still kept under tight control.

The CPP is also resource-rich, well equipped with coercive means and in control of state institutions, especially the armed forces and the judiciary. Those who have refused to defect to the CPP or who resist it face acts of intimidation and threats of punishment.

Disarming the CPP’s political opposition involves taking pre-emptive action to make it difficult for opposition leaders to mobilise effective political support far ahead of the 2018 election. Hun Sen has been successful in suppressing the political opposition and shutting out any help offered to his opponents. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been the primary target. The recent jailing of its president, Kem Sokha, is a good example of Hun Sen’s tactics. The recent decision by the Supreme Court to dissolve the CNRP ensures the CPP will not face any credible challenges in 2018.

Any organisations, domestic or foreign, perceived as politically supportive of or sympathetic to opposition parties are also viewed as potential targets by the CPP. Media outlets have come under pressure, especially those that broadcast news produced by foreign media agencies such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The government recently shut down The Cambodia Daily, a major English language newspaper in the country, and sent its owner a bill of several million dollars for its failure to pay taxes. In August 2017, the government closed the US-funded National Democratic Institute and expelled its staff from Cambodia.

Hun Sen claims these ‘legal’ actions against the CPP’s political opponents and its critics are about protecting national security. Is this true?

The answer is no. Since the end of the Cold War, Cambodia has not encountered any serious external threat. In fact, the country has been blessed with goodwill from countries around the world. Cambodia did the right thing when it joined ASEAN in 1999. In spite of some unresolved territorial disputes and minor border clashes between Cambodia and two of its fellow ASEAN members, Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian relations with its neighbours have been relatively peaceful. Western democracies may want to see regime change, but evidently have not done anything credible to undermine the CPP.

The unarmed opposition to the CPP does not pose any threat to Cambodian national security either, but it has threatened to undermine the ruling party’s political dominance. Although the CPP won in the 2013 national election, it lost 22 seats to the CNRP, giving the opposition more leverage over the ruling elite. In spite of good economic growth, ratings of Hun Sen’s performance among urban populations remain low. If elections were free and fair, the CPP would end up losing.

While they have done a lot of good for the country, including taking part in the war against the murderous Pol Pot regime and helping many Cambodians to enjoy the fruits of economic growth, the CPP elite have reason to worry about their political future.

Hun Sen and other top CPP leaders have been accused of human rights violations and rampant corruption and thus can never be sure of what might happen to them if they were to lose power. Hun Sen has already been threatened with legal action — another reason why the CPP has tightened control over the security forces and the judicial system, using the courts to prosecute any serious opponents threatening its survival.

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Cambodia remains an attractive tourist destination

Cambodia’s politics of survival is likely to continue unless or until members of the CPP elite and those in the opposition see their common problem: the inherent weakness of Cambodia’s state institutions, which perpetuates the toxic dynamics of threat and counter-threat. Both sides tend to demonise each other. They keep engaging in the nasty politics of character assassination, killing any possibility of advancing a common interest or any hopes for solidifying the culture of dialogue.

Cambodian leaders have a big choice to make. Either they continue along this current trend with no end in sight, or they band together to build the country’s democratic state institutions for the benefit of their own nation. Working together is certainly the only way out and the best option, but this is likely to fall on deaf ears. This is the tragedy of survival politics in Cambodia — a real threat to democracy and its national security.

Sorpong Peou is President of Science for Peace, based at the University of Toronto, and Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University.

Trump throws a diplomatic bomb into the Mid-East Peace Process

December 7, 2017

Trump throws a diplomatic bomb into the Mid-East Peace Process

by Robin Wright

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“No one person’s personal ambitions should be allowed to alter the fates of billions of people. Any such move would only embolden terrorist organizations,”–Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 

President Trump threw a diplomatic bomb into the Middle East peace process with his twin decisions to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. The decision broke with seven decades of U.S. policy by both Republican and Democratic Administrations. It defied every ally, save Israel, and disregarded a last-ditch global campaign that included key figures from the world’s three monotheistic religions—Pope Francis, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and American Jewish groups. Trump’s decision fulfilled a campaign promise, but it threatened to unravel one of his top foreign-policy pledges: to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, who have already called for “three days of rage” in response.

In a brief statement read off teleprompters at the White House, Trump called his decision a “new approach to the conflict” and a long-overdue and “necessary step” to enhance the peace process. “Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done,” he said.

For the first time, the President expressed support for a two-state solution—if the two sides ultimately embrace that formula as the solution. This was not a concession, however, given that his Republican and Democratic predecessors endorsed the two-state concept as well. Trump also stipulated that his decision was not intended to influence the final boundaries or borders of either state. Vice-President Mike Pence will travel to the region soon to reinforce the U.S. commitments, Trump said.

“There will of course be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement,” Trump said. “But we are confident that, ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a place of greater understanding and coöperation.” He added, “We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.”

The curious and almost contradictory aspect of Trump’s announcement was the timing, particularly since the move may not happen until a new Embassy is found or built, which could take as long as three or four years, U.S. officials say. In his statement, Trump said only that the current approach to the peace process had failed to work and a change was needed.

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The status of Jerusalem—sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths—has long been one of the “final status” issues to be determined as part of the peace process. One of the implicit rewards for a peace accord was moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to West Jerusalem—and possibly opening a separate U.S. Embassy to a new state of Palestine, in an eastern part of the city. The U.S. Embassy was effectively a valuable diplomatic chit in the most complicated and drawn-out peace negotiations since the Second World War. The President has now played that card in reverse order, and for nothing tangible in return. Indeed, the move cost his Administration credibility even before it was made.

The Palestinian Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, said that the announcement “destroys the peace process,” a warning echoed by many top Palestinians who embrace peace negotiations and have engaged with Israelis for more than a quarter century, since the 1993 Oslo Accord.

“In one blow, President Trump has destroyed not only the chances of any peace but the stability and security of the region as a whole,” Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, said on CNN, on Wednesday. “He has undermined his closest allies in the Arab world. He has given all extremists and nuts all over the world who are ready to commit acts of violence a perfect excuse because he has provoked spiritual sentiments and religious feelings to the point where we don’t know how far the ramifications will go.”

Khalil Shikaki was one of the first Palestinians to work with Israeli counterparts in studying the feasibility of peace—by conducting pre-accord public-opinion polls—in the early nineteen-nineties. He launched one of the first independent polling-research groups in the Arab world—the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, in Ramallah—and has also lectured extensively to American Jewish Groups. Since 2005, he has also been a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

“If it’s done in isolation of whatever efforts he’s trying on peace, then it’s nonsensical,” Shikaki told me. “It would basically kill any chance that his efforts would be seen as credible.” In his poll of Palestinian public opinion, in September, some three quarters of Palestinians already said that the Trump Administration was not serious about achieving peace. The immediate danger, Shikaki warned, is the breakdown of pivotal (and U.S.-supported) coördination between the Palestinian and Israeli security forces, which are instrumental in preventing individual acts of violence from escalating into another intifada, or uprising. “Israeli-Palestinian coöperation has made stability possible,” he told me. “I can’t see it continuing in an environment where it looks like conditions on the peace process or political front are no longer there.”

Regionally, the Jerusalem decision “will unify moderates and extremists,” Shikaki predicted. Any effort to build an Arab coalition to side with the United States on major policy issues across the region is now jeopardized. Other Arab leaders “will see no point of working with President Trump and making themselves vulnerable to criticism,” he told me.

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Not surprisingly, the Islamic world reacted angrily to Trump’s decision. Turkey unveiled plans for a summit of leaders of Muslim countries to coördinate their response. The “whole world is against” Trump’s decision, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said. After a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, on Wednesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took a crack at Trump’s domestic motivation for the move—and his political ego. “No one person’s personal ambitions should be allowed to alter the fates of billions of people. Any such move would only embolden terrorist organizations,” he said. Turkey has been one of the few predominantly Muslim nations to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, although the relationship has been rocky.

The wider world was alarmed as well. Both Russia and China expressed concern about new tensions in a region already ravaged by four wars, in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. At the United Nations, Secretary General António Guterres said that Jerusalem’s status had to be determined by the Israelis and Palestinians. He warned about taking “unilateral measures” undermining international peace efforts, although he did not mention President Trump by name. “In this moment of great anxiety, I want to make it clear: there is no alternative to the two-state solution,” Guterres said. “There is no Plan B.” Britain’s Foreign Secretary called on the United States to quickly follow the move by outlining its plan for peace. So far, the negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors by the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Trump’s decision comes just months after he over confidently assessed his ability to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “It is something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” he said, during a visit by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in May.

The State Department recognized and reacted quickly to the dangers of the President’s decision. On Wednesday, it banned American diplomats and their families “until further notice” from travelling to Jerusalem’s Old City or the West Bank, including Bethlehem and Jericho, except for “essential business.” It also warned all U.S. citizens to “avoid areas where crowds have gathered and where there is increased police and/or military presence.” And, in a cable to all diplomatic missions, the State Department ordered diplomats stationed anywhere to defer all nonessential travel to Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank until December 20th, according to Reuters. Risk-management firms issued dispatches warning about the dangers of anti-American activity across the Islamic world, in countries as far away as Indonesia. Several European countries also issued security warnings to their citizens in the Middle East.

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“How does this serve our national interests?” Aaron David Miller who worked on the peace process under six Secretaries of State. Trump antagonizes the Muslim World

Current and former U.S. officials involved in the peace process were also aghast at Trump’s announcement. “How does this serve our national interests?” Aaron David Miller (pic above), who worked on the peace process under six Secretaries of State, and who is now the director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, told me.

“One statement is going to undercut everything they want to do. It will take us out of the game,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and to Egypt and now a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, told me. Speculating on the rationale behind Trump’s decision, he continued, “You want to shoot yourself in the foot—because it’s good for your base—but you’ve got to understand what you’re doing.”

Implementing Trump’s policy could be a long way off. The U.S. does currently have a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which has been the liaison to the Palestinian Authority—and which does not come under the authority of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. One option explored in the past was whether it could be converted into an Embassy and a new facility could be found for a consulate to deal with Palestinians.

“We are just at the beginning of a process of assessing requirements for an Embassy, which as you know are detailed and time consuming anywhere in the world,” a senior State Department official, told me in an e-mail. “We will of course look at the properties we currently own/long-term lease, but have in no way come to any judgment as to suitability from a security/safety/fit for purpose standpoint.”

In Jerusalem, the Israeli government reacted by illuminating the Old City’s historic walls with red, white, and blue lights in tribute to the U.S. decision. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heralded Trump’s announcement as an “important step,” and pledged to “continue to work with the President and his team to make that dream of peace come true.” Given the reaction everywhere else, however, the prospects of peace may be further off than they were ten months ago when Trump entered the White House.


ASEAN needs to move to minilateralism

December 6, 2017

ASEAN needs to move to minilateralism

by Richard Javad Heydarian*

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RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical and contemporary issues. The authors’ views are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print  with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email your feedback to Mr Yang Razali Kassim, Editor RSIS Commentary at RSIS


To save the principle of ASEAN centrality, the regional body should transcend its consensus-based decision-making and embrace minilateral arrangements on divisive issues.

For four decades, ASEAN commendably established the foundations of a nascent security community in Southeast Asia, where the threat of war among neighbouring states has teetered on the verge of impossibility. In the past two decades, the regional body has tirelessly sought to create a broadly peaceful, rules-based and inclusive regional security architecture.

The regional body is increasingly suffering from a ‘middle institutional trap’. The type of decision-making arrangements that enabled it to reach its current stage of institutional maturity are insufficient to meet its newer challenges. In particular, the rise of China and its growing assertiveness are not only disturbing the regional security architecture but also undermining ASEAN’s internal cohesion and its quest for centrality in East Asian affairs.

Limitations of ASEAN Way

The ‘ASEAN way’, where consensus and consultation undergird decision-making regimes, is no longer up to the task. The regional body’s unanimity-based decision-making mechanism has unwittingly handed a de facto veto power to weaker links that are under the influence of external powers.

Moving forward, the body has two choices. It can modify its institutional configuration by adopting an ‘ASEAN–X’ or ‘qualified majority’ voting modality on politico-security affairs, or it can fall into irrelevance.

This is poignantly evidenced by the South China Sea disputes. After it failed to embrace wholesale institutional innovation, the only way forward is a constructive form of ‘ASEAN minilateralism’, where like-minded and influential countries in the region coordinate their diplomatic and strategic calculations vis-a-vis South China Sea disputes.

End of ASEAN Centrality?

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In 2016, the leaders of ASEAN displayed encouraging unity — or at least a semblance of it — during the Sunnylands Summit with former US President Barack Obama. At the end of the meeting, the two sides released a joint statement that called for shared ‘commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to threat or use of force, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea’.

So both sides agreed that not only should the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) be a basis for resolution of disputes, but also mentioned ‘legal processes’, which could be interpreted as an implicit statement of support for the Philippines’ decision to resort to compulsory arbitration against China in accordance with Article 287, Annex VII of UNCLOS.

Both sides also emphasised the necessity of ‘non-militarisation and self-restraint’. This was particularly salient given China’s worrying deployment of surface-to-air missile systems, high-frequency radars and fighter jets to contested land features in the Paracel Islands as well as newly built facilities across artificial islands in the Spratlys.

But as the Philippines’ arbitration case reached its final stages, ASEAN suddenly began to lose steam. Things came to a head during the special foreign ministers meeting between ASEAN and China in Kunming when the Southeast Asian countries failed to release a joint statement, which forced frustrated officials in the Malaysian Foreign Minister’s Office (which initiated the high-level meeting) to release a draft joint statement.

A Minilateralist Solution

It did not take long for some ASEAN countries to shut down any hope of ASEAN centrality on the South China Sea disputes. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen openly criticised the Philippines’ compulsory arbitration against China, dismissing it as a provocative act that is ‘not about laws’ and instead a ‘political conspiracy between some countries and the court’.

More disappointing, when it became clear that the Philippines scored a clean sweep victory against China (with the court nullifying China’s historic rights doctrine and much of its nine-dashed line) most ASEAN countries immediately called for patience and calm rather than compliance by claimant states to a binding decision.


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In a strange twist of events, the Philippine government under President Rodrigo Duterte has soft-pedalled on the issue, refusing to raise it in multilateral fora. During its 2017 chairmanship of ASEAN, the Philippines oversaw a joint statement that was ironically even less critical of China than in previous years.

It is highly unlikely that ASEAN will ever find a consensus or adopt a robust statement on South China Sea disputes. The much-vaunted code of conduct (COC) framework looks like a repackaged Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, since dispute settlement mechanisms or any reference to relevant UNCLOS provisions (and Philippine arbitration) are excluded.

COC: New Hope or Mirage?

Looking at the outline of the COC framework, the ‘objectives’ of the document are ‘to establish a rules-based framework containing a set of norms to guide the conduct of parties and promote maritime cooperation in the South China Sea’. The operative term is ‘norms’, which denotes the absence of a legally binding nature. In the section on ‘principles’, this is quite clear: the document states that the final COC will not be ‘an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues’.

Key ASEAN countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can bilaterally and individually release statements that communicate their disappointment with China’s activities in the area and relay their willingness to step up their ‘minilateral’ cooperation in the South China Sea.

ASEAN claimant states can also negotiate a parallel legally binding COC grounded in international law that can then serve as a framework for maritime delimitation. It can be more substantive and maximalist. It should call for an immediate freeze on reclamation activities, construction of military facilities, deployment of military assets and expansive illegal fishing in the area.

If ASEAN cannot embrace this minilateral approach, it runs the risk of complete irrelevance in shaping and managing potentially the most combustible conflict in the 21st century.

*Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author who contributed this to RSIS Commentary. The article is partly based on a conference organised by Stratbase-ADR Institute (July 2016), and a joint workshop of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of Nanyang Technological  University, Australian National University, and Stanford University at the Asia-Pacific Centre For Security Studies (APCSS) in October 2017.

Saudia Arabia puts itself in the bull’s eye

December 3, 2017

Targeting Islamic scholars from Malaysia to Tunisia, Saudia Arabia puts itself in the bull’s eye

By James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters file

By declaring the Qatar-based International Union of Islamic Scholars (ILUM) a terrorist organization, Saudi Arabia is confronting some of the world’s foremost Islamic political parties and religious personalities, opening itself up to criticism for its overtures to Israel, and fuelling controversy in countries like Malaysia and Tunisia.

In a statement earlier this week, Saudi Arabia charged that ILUM was “using Islamic rhetoric as a cover to facilitate terrorist activities.” The banning of ILUM goes to the heart of the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar and is driven by United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s visceral opposition to any expression of political Islam.

The UAE for several years has sought with little evident success to counter ILUM’s influence by establishing groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres’ anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

The ban appears to have been designed to position Saudi Arabia as the arbiter of what constitutes true Islam and marks a next phase in a four-decade long, $100 billion campaign waged by the kingdom to counter Iran by spreading for the longest period of time Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, that often served as an ideological inspiration for jihadist philosophy – an iteration ultra-conservatives have condemned.

ILUM “worked on destroying major religious institutions in the Muslim world, like the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar in Egypt,” one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning, charged Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist and columnist for Al Arabiya.

Al Arabiya’s owner, Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, was among the kingdom’s top media barons arrested in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent purge of members of the ruling family, senior officials, and businessmen under the mum of anti-corruption.

“The terrorism project hiding under Islam launched its work around the same time organizations which issue extremist fatwas (religious legal opinions) were founded. Like al-Qaeda and ISIS (an acronym for the Islamic State), these jurisprudential groups said they refuse to be local as they view themselves as global organizations that cross borders. The most dangerous aspect of terrorism is extremist ideology. We realize this well now,” Mr Al-Rashed said.

The Council of Senior Scholars, despite having endorsed Prince Mohammed’s reforms in a bid to salvage what it can of the power sharing agreement that from the kingdom’s founding granted his ruling Al Saud family legitimacy, is a body of ultra-conservative Islamic scholars.

Various statements by the council and its members critical of aspects of Prince Mohammed’s economic and social reform since his rise in 2015 suggest that support among its scholars is not deep-seated.

Prince Mohammed recently vowed to move the kingdom away from its embrace of ultra-conservatism and towards what he described as a more “moderate” form of Islam.

Speaking to The New York Times, Prince Mohammed argued that at the time of the Prophet Mohammed  there were musical theatres, an absence of segregation of men and women, and respect for Christians and Jews, who were anointed People of the Book in the Qur’an. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman! Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?” Prince Mohammed asked.

Authorities days later banned pilgrims from taking photos and videos in Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina in line with an ultra-conservative precept that forbids human images. The ban was imposed after Israeli blogger Ben Tzion posted a selfie in Mecca on social media. Authorities bar non-Muslims from entering the two holy cities.

In a statement, authorities said the ban was intended to protect and preserve Islam’s holiest sites, prevent the disturbance of worshippers, and ensure tranquillity while performing acts of worship.

Founded by controversial Egyptian-born scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s most prominent living clerics and believed to be a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, ILUM members include Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the co-founder and intellectual leader of Tunisia’s Brotherhood-inspired Ennahada Party, and Malaysian member of parliament and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) head Abdul Hadi bin Awang.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi, a naturalized Qatari citizen who in the past justified suicide bombings in Israel but has since condemned them,  was labelled a terrorist by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June as part of their diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The UAE-Saudi-led alliance demanded that Qatar act against Mr. El-Qaradawi and scores of others as a condition for lifting the six-month-old boycott.

Mr. El-Ghannouchi was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2011. He was also awarded the prestigious Chatham House Prize. Mr. El-Ghannouchi is widely credited for ensuring that Tunisia became the only Arab country to have successfully emerged from the 2011 Arab popular revolts as a democracy.

The banning of ILUM has, moreover, sparked political controversy in Malaysia. Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, recently noted a deepening involvement of Malaysia’s religious authorities in policy decisions, developments she said were influenced by “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula” that was “at odds with local forms of practice.”

“Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia,” added Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

Critics of PAS  demanded that Mr. Bin Awang, President of the group, “come clean that he does not preach hatred” in the words of former PAS leader Mujahid Yusof Rawa, and called on the government to ask Saudi Arabia for information to back up its charges against the union.

Mr Bin Awang, referring to Saudi King Salman, asserted last week that he relied on the “Qur’an (for guidance) although the ruler who is the servant of the Two Holy Cities has forged intimate ties with Israel and the United States, because my faith is not with the Kaaba but with Allah.” One of the most sacred sites in Mecca, Muslims turn to the Kaaba when praying.

“Just like Qatar, PAS had tried to ingratiate itself with Iran in an attempt to cover both bases, along with Saudi. Now the chicken has come home to roost, and just like Qatar, global minnows like PAS find themselves caught in the middle between the two Muslim world influencers,” said Malaysian columnist Zurairi Ar.

Among other members of ILUM is controversial Saudi scholar Salman al-Odah, who was among clerics, intellectuals, judges and activists arrested in the kingdom weeks before the most recent purge.

With millions of followers on social media, Mr. Al-Odah, a once militant scholar, turned a decade ago against jihadis like Osama bin Laden and played a key role in the kingdom’s program to rehabilitate militants, but retained his opposition to the monarchy.

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 as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Moral Imperative of Quality Education

November 28, 2017

The Moral Imperative of Quality Education

by Peter Mutharika

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Peter Mutharika–President of Malawi

Poor countries like Malawi are doing what they can to improve educational quality and access. But there is only so much that a country with modest means can achieve, which is why global leaders, when they meet in Senegal early next year, must recommit to investing in the education of all children.


BLANTYRE, MALAWI – In September, I was among a group of world leaders who gathered in New York City to discuss ways to improve access to quality education. Around the world, hundreds of millions of children are either not receiving basic schooling, or are attending schools but not learning. We gathered to devise a way forward.

The crisis that I discussed with heads of state from France, Senegal, and Norway, along with leaders from the United Nations and global education advocates, is not an abstract problem unfolding in a distant land. It is a crisis that has reached my doorstep in Malawi. The challenge of education is one that my government, like many in developing countries, grapples with every day.

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Quality schooling is key to helping people contribute to the development of their communities and their countries. Without a properly educated populace, it would take decades for developing countries like mine to overcome the profound economic, social, and health challenges that we face.

As one of the co-conveners of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity – which brings together world leaders to mobilize support for solutions to the education crisis – I have long focused on how to improve educational access. Quality schooling is key to helping people contribute to the development of their communities and their countries. Without a properly educated populace, it would take decades for developing countries like mine to overcome the profound economic, social, and health challenges that we face.

To ensure that we do not fail our children, or our country, my government is investing heavily to build a strong and sustainable education system. We have steadily increased education spending, which has risen from 12.5% of the total domestic budget in 2010 to 21% in 2015. This represents one of the highest percentages among developing countries anywhere, and I hope that our example will encourage leaders elsewhere to devote at least 20% of their national budgets to education.

But there is a limit to what economically struggling countries like Malawi can do alone. To make real progress in education, the generous support of wealthier partner countries and global institutions is essential. The momentum we have generated can be sustained only if donor support remains strong.

Malawi’s education sector has benefited greatly from balancing increased domestic investment with external support. For example, more Malawian children are enrolled in primary school than ever before, and the rate of boys and girls completing primary education has increased dramatically, from 59% in 2007 to 80% in 2014. Adult literacy has also improved, albeit more modestly, from 61% in 2010 to 66% in 2015.

Still, Malawi falls far behind the rest of the world on a several key education indicators. Among the list of challenges we face are derelict schools, high pupil-to-teacher ratios, and significant gaps in inspection and oversight capabilities. These and other issues make it hard for teachers to teach and for students to learn.

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GPE Global Ambassador Rihanna at the Élysée, Paris, July 2017

When Rihanna, the pop artist and ambassador of the Global Partnership for Education, visited Malawi in January and met with students and teachers, she put a spotlight on the promise of education. Our country has been fortunate to receive funding in recent years from bilateral donors and international organizations like GPE, which helps countries like mine increase educational quality and broaden access.

Since 2009, GPE funding has enabled Malawi to conduct long-term planning and data collection, and has brought domestic and international partners together for a common cause. GPE’s support has helped us build more facilities, overhaul our curriculum, improve access for girls, and train more educators.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Malawi’s partnership with GPE has been transformative, which is why I am urging donor countries around the world to contribute generously to GPE at its upcoming financing conference in Senegal. By 2020, GPE aims to distribute more than $2 billion annually to help improve education in developing countries around the world.

Without GPE’s support, some 825 million young people risk being left behind without the education or skills to perform well in the workplace of the future. That could lead to growing unemployment, poverty, inequality, instability, and other factors that threaten not just individual countries or regions, but the entire international community.

Educating every child is a moral imperative and thus a universal responsibility. In today’s interconnected world, challenges and gains in low-income countries do not remain local.

When my colleagues and I met in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we recommitted to solving the challenges of educational quality and access. We now need the rest of the world to join us in addressing this global crisis head-on.