Middle East

Let Me Tell You About…

When I had first decided to study Middle Eastern politics I had some reservations. Would it interest me enough that I could intellectually engage in the topic? Would the work load be too heavy? Why would I want to study this topic in the first place? These were all questions that I asked myself, and I can now say that this course has been the biggest eye opener in relation to my politics studies.

That being said, I still have no idea about Middle Eastern politics. The topic and region is very diverse and multifaceted and as such I could spend a lifetime studying and still not understand all of it. Of all of the issues that I learnt about one sticks out as the more important: the colonisation of Middle Eastern countries and U.S., British, and French intervention. This issues was paramount in understanding the ‘hatred’ that Arabs have against westerners. Yet surprisingly Arab nations have invaded other nations on the assumption of western backing (i.e. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait). Other issues such as the Arab Spring/Awakening, Egypt Suez Canal, and Iranian nuclear program have all contributed to furthering my understanding of the Middle East.

Prior to beginning my blog posts I had very little knowledge of the Middle East, and I am hesitant to say that it was only through this unit that I discovered that Pakistan and Afghanistan were not considered to be part of the Middle East. I now have knowledge on myriad Middle Eastern political issues and have broken some common misconceptions. Furthermore, through my blog post research I’ve discovered how limited some of the media examples are on the Middle East. In some instances I found articles that offered powerful views yet only had one example or Arab opinion. I’ve also discovered that there are some…strange people out there posting things/propaganda on the internet.

In my opinion this blog has allowed me to discuss issues within the Middle East while concentrating on topics which have interested me. I had hoped to discuss issues which were not ‘popular’ media issues, so as to illustrate to scope of problems and topics in the area. I hope that in turn those that read my blog posts have discovered new issues in the Middle East and are less content to take everything in relation to Arabs from Ray Steven’s point of view.

 

The Brownnose in the Middle East

The relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East has been turbulent at best. Many Arab nations reject western ways and blame westerners for part of the instability in the Middle East. Within the international arena the U.S. and Saudi Arabian relationship is of interest. One might think that due to the 9/11 attacks that the relationship between these two countries might have become strained (due to 15 of the 19 terrorists being of Saudi decent), however each country is committed to a strong diplomatic relationship.

According to the U.S. Department of State website the U.S. and Saudi Arabia ‘share common concerns and consult closely on wide range of regional and global issues’ and have done so since the 1940’s. One of the main factors of this ‘strong’ relationship is the oil exports out of Saudi Arabia. These two countries have both supported major offensive action against al-Qaeda terrorist cells in Yemen and also supplied arms to Syria. In recent events the Saudi government is pushing the U.S. to intervene in the Syrian war, as Arab intervention has so far failed to ascertain positive results.

The activities of the U.S. in relation to Saudi Arabia is very, for lack of a better term, ‘kiss-arse’. In the past decade the U.S has bowed down to Saudi social and political discrepancies. For example, President Bush and top congressional leaders in 1990 visited the American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia during Thanksgiving. President Bush intended to say grace before a Thanksgiving dinner, however the Saudi’s objected (as there is only one religion in Saudi Arabia: Islam) and Bush and his party instead celebrated on the U.S.S Durham, which was sitting in international waters. A further example of just how far the U.S. is willing to go to accommodate the Saudi international guests was evident during 2002, when Crown Prince Abdallah travelled across America to visit President Bush. The Crown Prince demanded that at the airport there should be no females on the ramp, no female cabin crew and no female air traffic controllers, however the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the State Department both deny that such a request was made. While both these examples have been subjected to the media’s scrutiny, they do illuminate the measures that the American government is willing to take in order to maintain their relationship with Saudi Arabia.

In recent events the Saudi government has had cause for concern. In the past both governments have had diverse views on numerous issues within the Middle East, however recent disagreement over Iran and Syria have caused Saudi Arabia to become weary of the U.S. and a possible ‘hidden’ agenda. Fearing that Washington is preparing a ‘bargain’ with Iran in relation to the nuclear program and that the U.S. intervention into Syria is taking too long, relations between the two countries have become somewhat structurally unstable.

However despite these issues and tensions the relationship between these two countries is likely to continue as it is due to neither having a better alternative partner.

 

U.S./Saudi relationship in a nutshell

(While there are many more examples and case studies that I could have included, the main notion that I wanted to express it that these two countries have a symbiotic relationship and as such the issue of the 9/11 Saudi terrorists has been swept under the rug in place of larger economic relations. The U.S. seems to do little to upset Saudi Arabia and is willing to cater to their every need.)

The Hair in the Hijab

In the Middle East there are many differing cultural and religious traditions. One such tradition of Muslim women is the wearing of the headscarf – hijab. To many westerners the headscarf is seen as a statement of extreme religious modesty and that women are subjected to the mandatory wearing of the hijab. Yet this generalisation does not encompass all of the countries and their views on the matter. There are a number of reasons as to why Muslim women wear a hijab and these reasons range from: rebelling against bans placed on hijaban; oppression; a symbol of Muslim Feminist movements; or as a ruse.

There is no mention of a ‘religious’ wearing of a hijab in the Quran, or even mention of having to wear a burqa. The dress code for women is mentioned in the Quran yet it only stipulates that women should cover their chests (24:31); lengthen their garments (33:59); and that for both members of sex the best garment should be worn for righteousness and modest conduct (7:26).

Before the 1970’s a hijab was not as religious as it is seen in modern settings. During the mid-1970’s Muslim men and women started a movement called Sahwah, which caused a heightened religiosity on cultural issues such as how one was supposed to dress. The movement spread throughout the Middle East and has influenced Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan (under the Taliban) to enforce the wearing of the hijab. Other countries in the Middle East view the wearing of a hijab as ‘optional’. In Turkey and Tunisia the hijab has been banned from government buildings, schools and universities, though the hijab itself is not mandatory.

While countries may have their differing stances on the hijab, women themselves have expressed their thoughts on this issue. Researcher Shereen El Feki, discovered that some young Muslin women wear the hijab as a ruse. These young women use the hijab as a cover, and say that by wearing the hijab their parents see them as ‘good’ Muslim women and they (the parents) exercise less vigilance. Other Muslim women view the hijab as liberating and it has become a symbol of the Muslim feminist movement. This movement views the hijab as a part of their identity and a reclamation of equality. In the ‘oppressor’ countries, women can be subjected to fine, beatings, or worse if they are found to have their hair visible.

Muslim women claim that they enjoy the safety of the hijab as it keeps them from becoming appealing to the eyes of men. Women who do not wear the hijab are seen as sexually enticing and as seducing the eyes of men. Yet the hijab does not seem to be stopping Muslim women from being sexually harassed. A UN survey reported that 99% of Egyptian women were subjected to some form of sexual harassment despite most of the women having worn a hijab.

In Iran a movement against women’s oppression and the mandatory wearing of the hijab has taken place via a Facebook ‘revolution’. According the Iranian law a woman can receive up to 70 lashings and 60 days in prison for not wearing a hijab, yet some Iranian women are posting selfies without their headscarves. One women states that it’s a relief to be able to take it off as it was never her choice to put it on.

Though the reason for wearing the hijab varies from country to country and from women to women, the hijab is symbolic in various ways. Gathering credible information regarding the hijab and women’s opinions have proven difficult as some women are shy about their reasons and others are forced (by the male members of their family) to express a certain opinion.

Middle Eastern Dress

 

What the fatwā?

Over the past months the issues surrounding the Iranian nuclear program has been the highlight in Middle Eastern news. Yet one issue was discussed during a lecture on Iran: do fatawā, more specifically the fatwā that the supreme ruler of Iran devised, have credence.

A fatwā is an Islamic pronouncement, which is issued by clerks or mufti, which pertain to a specific issues that are or are not in correlation to Sharia law. A fatwā is not a binding law and is only applicable to those of the Muslin faith, and according to the Islamic Supreme Council of America – a fatwā is optional for the individual to respect or not.

If this is the stance on fatawā then how can the supreme leader of Iran reassure the UN that their endeavors in relation to the nuclear program are for the purpose of ‘peaceful’ study only? The US and the UN do not have immediate concern that Iran will produce WMD’s, as it has been proven that it would take over 6 months for Iran to produce the uranium needed. However it is interesting that Obama has repeated that the supreme ruler ‘promised’ that a fatwā was issued and Iran would not create WMD’s.

Of course there are more legalities to this issue than the reliance of a fatwa however I found it concerning that such a reliance was placed on fatawā and so I have endeavored to provide research on the issues of fatawā and their validity. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in 2012, stated that “The Islamic Republic—logically, religiously and theoretically—considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous” and he proposed the idea of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, with Iran being committed to this goal. However there has been debate as to if the supreme leader actually issued an official fatwā in regards to the nuclear program and WMD’s.

To complicate the issue further, is the notion that a fatwā can be withdrawn. In an interesting turn of events, a fatwā was issued in Australia which stated that it was a sin to celebrate Christmas. This fatwā was removed shortly after it was issued. In more serious events, the fatwā which was issued on Salman Rushdie, which was withdrawn in 1998 by Iranian president Mohammad Khatami was reissued in 2012. These examples show that in some instances a fatwā can be withdrawn or reinstated. If a withdrawal is possible what is stopping the Iranian supreme leader from withdrawing his fatwā on nuclear weapons? As the US seems to be basing most of its peace negotiations on the providence of this fatwā.

Cradle of Civilisation?

Mesopotamia is often described as the cradle of civilisation, a place where agriculture, trade, and literature (to name but a few) were devised. What may surprise some is that the area where the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia was situated is what is now known as Iraq.

Yet a country which has flourished in the past centuries has come to a standstill in the one thing which it is famed for: learning, or to more specific, higher education. Since the 60’s and 70’s Iraq has fallen in its higher education ranking, and even more so in the last decade. What was once considered to be one of the best education systems in the Middle East has suffered from: infrastructural problems, lack of funding, academic ‘brain drain’, and increased violence. According to Christopher Hill (The Conversation), Iraq has seen a depletion of qualified academics and a general loss of faith. During the 2003 War on Iraq, more than 80% of the Universities were bombed, causing further problems for those wishing to attain a higher education.

With the supposed end of the ‘War on Terror’ and the slow stabilisation of the Iraqi nation the Minister for higher education and scientific research, Ali al-Adib, has proposed a reform in which the construction of 13 new universities and 28 colleges will take place. These universities and colleges will be constructed throughout the country with the assistance of UNESCO, the World Bank, and UNICEF.

These universities and colleges are a welcome reprieve from the current daily struggle of the Iraqi people. According to Ali al-Adib, the last decade has caused an entire generation to be subjected to various forms of violence, as well as sectarianism. The new universities will provide a safe learning environment. However, this statement has not yet proven to be true as a recent suicide bombing at the Imam Kadhim University (Baghdad) took the lives of nine university members. However, upset over the parliamentary elections were said to be the cause of this attack.

The education system has received further support through the possibility of overseas study. The Iraq Educational Initiative, which began in 2009, offers Iraqi students scholarships to study in English speaking countries. There is currently US$200 million in scholarships available. Countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Greece, India, UK and the US are just some of the countries which offer Iraqi student higher educational degrees. In 2012 over 22,000 scholarships were awarded to students wishing to study for their masters or doctoral degrees.

In a country where war has been the main issue for over a decade, education is a way in which the students can strive to become something other than another casualty in the war.

Roxanne

For many Westerners, Middle Eastern woman are thought of as marginalised, male-dominated, and oppressed, yet this does not seem to be the case in the Kurdish regions of Syria. A Kurdish People’s Defence unit, made up of 35 women, train and live together. These women are taking up arms against the Islamist fighters and Bashar al-Assad. In this unit women are taught military tactic, for example how to ambush an enemy fighter. As ‘ordinary’ girls they would have had no value and would have been subject to their husbands wishes, yet as fighters they are respected. A male member of the Syria army stated that the sex of a soldier doesn’t matter, they would both fight side by side.

A sobering aspect of these women’s choice of becoming a soldier is that they are consciously choosing a life without a husband, children, or family. Once they become a soldier they are a member for life. As a consequence of their family’s death, some women have joined the People’s Defence unit to redress the wrongs done to them.

Yet Kurdish women have long been taking up arms in conflicts in the Middle East, in the 90s women soldiers were known for their zeal in launching suicide bombings. Despite being an integral part of the current rebellion women soldiers are still seen as an anomaly in Syria’s male dominated rebellion.

Of the Kurdish soldiers in the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, 20% of them are women. Kurdish women are breaking from their Arab counterparts in taking prominent roles in security and police task units and in guarding checkpoints and strategic buildings from jihadists and radical Islamists.

An interesting concept of freedom is repeated in some of the articles that I read, as two of the articles quoted women describing the fighting as ‘liberty for women’ and a ‘liberating experience’ yet one can’t help but wonder; is it fighting for a greater good, that is liberating or being treated as an “equal”, just another soldier, in a male dominate rebellion?

Members of the all women Syrian militia

 

Lebanon is no ‘Laughing grass’ matter

Security forces destroying hashish crops.

In a country that is prone to civil wars, assassinations of political figures and political subterfuge, it is of no surprise to discover that Lebanon is fast becoming the Middle East’s main hashish exporter. In the Bekka Valley, which stretches 75miles long and nearly the length of Lebanon itself, the cannabis trade is booming. In the last year vast quantities of land in the valley has been used to cultivate the cannabis. Hashish was banned in 1926 under the French mandate, yet it is still grown by the local farmers for want of a better produce.

As the cultivation of such a plant is illegal, the government every year orders its security forces to uproot the crops, causing the farmers to lose profit. According to the farmers in the valley, they are more than willing to grow another crop, however the government has not offered them an alternative solution, and so they continue to grow hashish as it thrives in the valley’s environment and needs little in terms of care. The issues has caused the farmers to strike out at the security forces and on various occasions both sides have engaged in conflict with the other.

Another reason why hashish is still grown is due to the collapse of the state. With no central authority overseeing such a large territory and conflict, drug cartels have ‘taken over’ the cultivation of the crops. Crooked politicians have ensured that these cartels are kept running due to the money that the cannabis brings in.

According to a farmer, an acre of hashish can be cultivated for US$100 and sold for US$4000, where as a crop of potatoes the same size is cultivated for $400 and makes a profit of only $100. It is evident as to why the farmers continue with the cultivation of hashish.

Hezbollah also has an issue with the drug trade and they have tried to persuade the government to destroy the crops. A member of Hezbollah was interviewed and insisted that Hezbollah did not use money made from the drug trade as it is against Sharia Law, and the group only uses drugs as a tool for security purposes and bribes.

In this instance, the perpetrator is not clear, if it is the farmers, the security forces, or Hezbollah for their inability to stop the trade. Either way it is a dominant issue within domestic and international politics and the government needs to address this issue, or perhaps an independent organisation needs to intervene and prevent further grievances.

The Peace in the Conflict

The latest news articles of Palestine seem to only focus on the Palestine/Israel peace talks. Indeed the two words almost seem synonymous. Yet what is rarely seem in the media is the ‘good’ aspects of the Palestine/Israel relationship.

When researching for last week’s blog post I came across an interesting website – Oasis of Peace. In 1972 this organisation created a community where Arabs and Jews were offered the opportunity to come together and share their living and life experiences in a hope that the dominant stereotypes would be reduced and that a peace between the two could be possible.

While some may be sceptical of this idea, and even the organisers admitted that they were naïve to an extent, the idea had some merit. The thesis of the organisation was that it was a conflict between two peoples rather than individuals and so with a few trial and errors the organisation came to offer an opportunity for two national identities to meet and identify with their group.

The organisation and community are such a success that the School of Peace is internationally recognised and has hosted 45,000 students and adults and the community has grown to 55 families. The school itself has 500 students and educates them in a bilingual bicultural environment.

This goes to show that not all citizens of Israel and Palestine are in conflict with each other and that there is hope that the two peoples are able to live together…eventually.

Oasis of Peace – Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam

ABC easy as 123?

One of the more complex issues of the middle-east is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. While the conflict is usually portrayed as a physical one through various media outlets, it is also evident on an educational level. A report by the Human Rights Watch (2001) on the school systems of Israel deduced that the education system discriminates against Palestinian citizens.

The Israeli government implements two different school systems, one for Jewish citizens and another for Palestinian citizens. Under international law the Israeli government may offer separate education and curricula systems for linguistic and/or religious purposes while still ensuring that they do not discriminate in the process, yet this does not seem to be the case in Israel.

According to the HRW report, Palestinian schools lack funding and equal curricula in comparison with the Israeli Jewish schools. Yet this inequality does not stop at just lower schools but also reaches into the university domain. All Palestinian students from the beginning to the end of their school lives are subjected to a lower level of:

  • Budgets
  • Curricula
  • Hiring practices
  • Teacher training
  • Physical conditions
  • Education psychologists
  • Counsellors, and
  • Special education

Palestinian Arab curricula has been structured so as to limit individual motivation and to ensure that the Palestinian minority is ‘submissive’ to the Jewish majority. Despite a ‘promise’ from the Director General of Israel’s Minister of Education to remove the larger gaps between the school systems in a year, the Israeli government was still allocating less money per Palestinian than Jewish school children in 2004.

While Palestinian teachers are having to make do with larger class sizes, a lack of resources and text books their Jewish counterparts enjoy smaller class size, better basic facilities such as, libraries, laboratories and recreational spaces. For Palestinian children the drop-out rate is three times more than that of Jewish children, with Palestinian children being less likely to pass the national matriculation exam to achieve their high school certificates. These discrepancies are also seen in university entry numbers, with only a small number of university students being of Palestinian decent.

One major difference of the school systems in terms of subjects, was that Palestinian children are taught in Arabic while Jewish children are taught in Hebrew. For the Palestinian children Hebrew is taught as a second language yet Jewish schools do not require their students to learn Arabic at an educational level.

Yet this discrimination does not stop at the school children but also extends to the teachers, as Palestinian teachers are required to undergo a security test – without their knowledge- and a Shin Bet stamp (General Security Service) before they are able to be hired.

These discrepancies are evident, yet the Supreme Court of Israel has never found the educational system, in cases of discrimination against a Palestinian student, to be guilty of a violation of the international law.

Palestinian school children

Egypt in DeNile

For hundreds of years, Egypt has had a monopoly on the water supply of the Nile River. Over 11 countries rely on the Nile for water supply, yet Egypt continues to place water allocations upon riparian states. Those states being: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. At present there is no Basin wide agreement upon the allocation of water and low-level conflicts between riparian states still occur. As population growth and economic development increases pressure on the Nile, countries such as Egypt who relies on the Nile as it’s main source of water, guards what water they can.

While Egypt is allocated 55.5 billion cubic meters of water (this figure is correct as of 2014, Masoud), considerably more than other states, it is in disagreement with Ethiopia constructing a dam to implement hydroelectric power as a power source. Admittedly this dam will be the largest dam in Africa, however Ethiopia claims that countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia will benefit from this dam, yet Egypt still guards its waters religiously.

Egypt’s hegemonic power continues to cause problems with the allocation of the Nile water resources. The late Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, is quoted to have said: “Any action that would endanger the waters of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction on the part of Egypt, even if that action should lead towards war”. Furthermore, Egypt’s power over the other riparian states can be seen through its own implementation of new mega irrigation projects while refusing other countries the same opportunity.

Perhaps Egypt should look towards environmental politics in sorting out the conflict rather than declining any treaty or trade negotiation which they are offered. This suggestion comes not from myself but from research done on the environmental sustainability of the Nile River, as the growth of the countries that rely on the Nile Basin is slowly adding pressure on the Nile as a water resource. Yet in the countries which rely on the Nile as their main water source, the debate on water continues to be politicised.

The Nile River Basin