Is Fundamentalism a problem?

Today when a terrorist attack happens, the press too often avoids naming the perpetrators and instead seeks to be uncompromised by phrases like “car hits people.” But not long ago, the press usually blamed fundamentalists for terrorist attacks.

The name fundamentalist originated, interestingly enough, in Protestant circles in the US. Only much later was it used to describe other religions, and then mostly to Muslims. Among Protestants, the name fundamentalist was used to designate people against theological liberalism. I explain. With the Enlightenment, an understanding grew in theological circles that modern man could not believe in supernatural aspects of the Bible anymore. The answer was theological liberalism, a theology that tried to maintain the “historical Jesus,” but striping him from anything science couldn’t explain. Fundamentalism was an answer to this. Fundamentalists believed that some things are, well… fundamental! You can’t have Jesus without the virgin birth, the many miracles, the resurrection, and the ascension. That would be not Jesus at all! In other words, it is a matter of Principia: either science comes first and faith must submit, or faith comes before science.

The great observation made by fundamentalist theologian Cornelius Van Til is that fundamentalist Protestants are not the only fundamentalists! Everybody has fundamentals. Everybody has basic principles that are themselves not negotiable. If you start asking people “why” eventually they will answer “because it is so.”

If everybody has starting points that are themselves not open to further explanation, that means that our problem (and the problem with terrorism) is not fundamentalism per se. Everybody has fundamentals. The question is what kind of fundamentals do you have. Fundamentals that tell you about the holiness of human life, or fundamentals that tell you that somehow assassinating people is ok or even commendable?

Beijing and the India-Pakistan conundrum

During the course of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in China, and days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in China for his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, an editorial in Pakistan’s premier English-language daily (Daily Times) titled ‘China’s re-assurance on CPEC‘ made an interesting point:

If anything Beijing has been asking Islamabad to engage with New Delhi and keep tensions to a minimum. Such an environment is also conducive to timely completion of various projects under CPEC [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] and transforming South and Western Asia into a high economic growth zone. Keeping the economy first is a lesson that our state has yet to learn from its big brother in the hood.

Zardari’s recommendation in 2012

Interestingly, during his meeting with former Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, in April 2012, former Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari (Pakistan People’s Party — PPP) had also stated that Pakistan and India should seek to follow the Pakistan-China model of engagement. Zardari meant that, like India and China, India and Pakistan too should follow an incremental approach, with more frequent high level interactions and a heavy focus on economic cooperation.

It might be mentioned that between 2012 and 2013 some important leaps were made in the economic sphere between both countries, with the most noteworthy development being the setting up of the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Attari (Amritsar, India). The ICP’s motive was to accelerate bilateral trade through the only land crossing (Attari-Wagah) between India and Pakistan. During this period, a number of high level delegations interacted, including the Commerce Ministers of both countries.

Pakistan also seemed prepared to grant India MFN status, but a change of government (along with domestic opposition from certain business lobbies as well as hardliners) in Islamabad (2013) and then New Delhi (2014) meant that this decision could not go ahead. Since then, relations have been tense, and there has been no opportunity to make any progress on this.

Tensions in the past 4 years: CPEC and terrorism emanating from Pakistan Continue reading

From Petty Crime to Terrorism

I grew up in France. I know the French language inside out. I follow the French media. In that country, France, people with a Muslim first name are 5% or maybe, 7% of the population. No one estimates that they are close to 10%. I use this name designation because French government agencies are forbidden to cooperate in the collection of religious (or ethic, or racial) data. Moreover, I don’t want to be in the theological business of deciding who is a “real Muslim.” Yet, common sense leads me to suspect that French people who are born Muslims are mostly religiously indifferent or lukewarm, like their nominally Christian neighbors. I am not so sure though about recent immigrants from rural areas bathed in a jihadist atmosphere, as occur in Algeria, and in Morocco, for example. Continue reading

Pakistan’s long struggle for democracy could get a boost from Trump, Rand Paul, and …the Saudis

In recent days, all eyes have been on President Trump’s January 1 tweet, which sent out an unequivocal message that it cannot be business as usual with Pakistan unless the latter takes concrete action against terror groups like the Haqqani Network.  Said Trump in his tweet:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump’s tweet was followed by the US decision to withhold Foreign Military Fund (FMF) aid (worth 255 million USD) due to Pakistan’s inaction against terror groups. The Department of Defense has also suspended Coalition Support Fund (CSF) money to Pakistan (worth 900 million USD). In all, over 1.1 Billion USD has been suspended. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul will be introducing a bill for ending all US aid to Pakistan. Said Paul:

I’ve been fighting to end Pakistani aid for years. But now we have a breakthrough. President Trump has publicly called to end their aid, and is currently holding up over $200 million of it. I want to end all of it.

The Kentucky senator has argued that the money provided to Pakistan can be used for building infrastructure in the US.

Reactions in Pakistan to Trump’s tweets were predictable. While some opposition parties said that US President’s assertive attitude vis-à-vis Pakistan is a failure of the present Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)-led government to put forward Pakistan’s view point effectively, the PML-N government criticized the US President’s remarks and said that it was ready to provide audits, and that it has been on the front line in the war against terror. Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, in response to Trump’s tweets stated:

Pakistan is ready to publicly provide every detail of the US aid that it has received over the last 15 years.

In the midst of all this, a number of noteworthy developments have taken place.

First, both Nawaz Sharif, President of Pakistan Muslim League and former PM, and Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab province and PML-N’s PM candidate, met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the night of January 1, 2018. There were speculations of various kinds with regard to the meeting. The first was that an agreement was being worked out where Nawaz Sharif would be exiled to Saudi Arabia in order to avoid the corruption cases filed against him in Pakistan. This, however, was flatly denied by his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif. A spokesman for the former PM also issued a strong denial in a press release. Said the spokesman:

He has always utilised these relations for national interest and never for his personal benefits.

The other major speculation was that the Sharifs met with the Saudi Crown Prince in light of the recent statements made by President Donald Trump, and had gone as a result of an understanding with the Pakistan army. Irrespective of whatever the reality was, it clearly shows that the Sharifs are still extremely relevant, not just because of their political influence in the province of Punjab, but also their strong networks in Saudi Arabia.

Second, Nawaz Sharif, who has – in spite of considerable domestic constraints – made concerted efforts at improving ties with India, had according to some news stories met with Pakistan National Security Advisor (NSA) Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua on December 28th, at the former’s Raiwind residence in Lahore. During this meeting, Sharif spoke about the need for mending fences with neighboring countries. The meeting was however dismissed as a false report.

Third, most interestingly the former PM, while reacting to Donald Trump’s attack on Pakistan as regrettable, launched an all out attack on the army and dictatorships in a speech on January 3, 2018. While he blamed Pervez Musharraf for capitulating to the US in 2002, the former PM also accused the army of propping up leaders through secret deals. He was alluding to the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-E-insaaf (PTI) Imran Khan. Sharif also called for self introspection, and that it was time for Pakistanis to “ask ourselves why the world does not take us seriously.”

A few points need to be kept in mind:

First, Nawaz Sharif – who has been written off – remains the tallest and most mature political leader who realises the importance of strong ties with neighbors, and realizes the pitfalls of excessive dependence upon one country. During his speech on January 3, 2018 he categorically stated:

I would like to advise Prime Minister Abbasi to develop a policy that ensures we don’t need US aid so that our image is not attacked in this manner.

Second, Sharif’s aggressive approach towards the army may not be appreciated by many in, or outside of, Pakistan. The Saudi Prince is supposed to have put forward his discomfort with Nawaz’s approach towards the army, saying it will destabilise Pakistan. Nawaz is not likely to cave in easily, and is likely to use every opportunity to attack the army, and will make attempts to restore civilian supremacy. This is clearly evident from his speech on January 3, 2018.

Third, post the 2018 Parliamentary elections which PML-N is likely to win, efforts will be made to reach out to India, since a better economic relationship with India will fit in with the overall goal of Pakistan becoming more self-reliant. PML-N would also like to send a clear message to Pakistan’s army about who the real boss is. The Pakistani army will off course continue to sabotage such efforts, but Nawaz Sharif seems determined to make one last ditch effort. This will off course require PML-N to take decisive action against terror groups targeting India.

External forces should stop treating the Pakistani army with kid gloves. While the US has taken the lead in taking a strong stand against the Pakistani army, China too needs to do a rethink of its short term goal of using Pakistan to contain India. Terrorism and instability will have an impact on China in the near run as well as long run. The outside world, while being firm with the Pakistani army, should continue to make efforts aimed at strengthening democratic forces within Pakistan.

India needs to work harder, both in its own backyard and in its near-abroad

While there is absolutely no doubt that Donald Trump has on more than one occasion sent harsh warnings to Islamabad – calling upon Pakistan to give up its support for terrorist groups or face the consequences – Trump’s predecessors had begun to reduce aid to Pakistan. During the Obama years, for example, American aid to Pakistan dropped from over 2 Billion USD in 2014, to a little over 1.1 Billion USD in 2016.

In his latest tweet, Trump minced no words, saying that Pakistan had fooled the US all these years, and that US will not take this lying down:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump tweeted early morning on New Year’s Day.

Earlier in the year, during his August speech pertaining to Afghanistan, Trump had categorically stated that it no longer could be business as usual, and that Pakistan needed to stop extending support to the Haqqani network and other groups. Said the US President:

We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time they are housing the same terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately.

A number of senior officials in the Trump Administration, such as the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence have hinted that harsh steps for Islamabad are a real possibility, some of which include not just withdrawal of aid to Pakistan, but also the removal of Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status.

During his recent visit to Afghanistan, Pence stated that President had put Pakistan on notice. Said Pence: “President Trump has put Pakistan on notice. As the President said, so I say now: Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with the United States, and Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”

In an oped written for the New York TimesTillerson stated:

Pakistan must contribute by combating terrorist groups on its own soil. We are prepared to partner with Pakistan to defeat terror organisations seeking safe havens, but Pakistan must demonstrate its desire to partner with us.

China – which has strategic and economic interests in Pakistan, with the primary one being the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – has stood by Pakistan. While reacting to Trump’s August 2017 address, State Councillor Yang Jiechi said:

“We should attach importance to Pakistan’s important role in Afghanistan and respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and legitimate security concerns.”

India’s reactions

New Delhi has understandably been closely observing these events. Trump’s warnings to Pakistan are viewed as positive news for India, and the Trump Administration has also pleased New Delhi by speaking against violent groups that are targeting India. The US, for example, has lent support to India’s demand for declaring Jaish-E-Muhammed (JEM) Chief, Masood Azhar, a designated terrorist by the UN (this move has of course been stalled by China).

Realists in New Delhi will however be keeping an eye on the following issues.

First, sections of the political class in Pakistan, as well as old hands in the American administration will not allow things between Islamabad and Washington to go downhill. A number of Pakistani politicians, such as Sherry Rehman, have already stated that while Pakistan should have its own independent policy, and it should not be submissive, it need not be excessively aggressive. While such politicians may not publicly say so, the fact is that there is a large swath of the Pakistani population which may not be very comfortable with the US, but is even more uncomfortable with the increasing Chinese presence in Pakistan as a consequence of CPEC.

In the US too, there are sections in the State Department which follow the approach of engaging with moderate forces in Pakistan given the country’s strategic importance. There is a section of the US establishment which does not want Pakistan to totally drift away from Washington’s orbit, mostly because China is beginning to take a larger role in the whole of South Asia, including Afghanistan. One of the declarations of the first Foreign Minister-level trilateral dialogue between China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan was the extension of (CPEC) into Afghanistan.

Said the Chinese Foreign Minister:

So China and Pakistan are willing to look at with Afghanistan, on the basis of win-win, mutually beneficial principles, using an appropriate means to extend CPEC to Afghanistan.

Both New Delhi and Washington will closely watch this development.

Apart from Beijing, Pakistan will rely on Saudi Arabia to soften Washington’s approach vis-à-vis Pakistan. The Sharif brothers, both Nawaz and Shahbaz, have strong connections in Saudi Arabia and while there were speculations that the Saudis were trying to broker a deal between the Pakistani military and the Sharifs, there is also a view that there’s an understanding between the Pakistani army and the Sharifs, and that the latter would use their links in the Saudi establishment to soften the Trump Administration, which has strong ties with Riyadh.

In conclusion, there is an increasing awareness with regard to the nexus between the Pakistani army and terror groups targeting India. Yet New Delhi should be more realistic in its calculations, and it needs to not just bank on Washington. Instead, India should also leverage its economic ties with Riyadh and Beijing to put more pressure on Pakistan. While there is no doubt that strategic convergence with Washington has increased phenomenally, Trump’s harsh words against Pakistan are not just driven by any conviction, but also by simple transactionalism. This very transactionalism has also created space for China to become more pro-active in South East Asia and South Asia. New Delhi thus needs to be pragmatic, deft, and leverage its economic rise more effectively.

A short note on the riots in Jerusalem

Big, violent riots in Jerusalem (July 22-23 2017). Last week, three Arabs Muslims with Israeli nationality killed two Israeli policemen in Jerusalem. Reminder: All of Jerusalem is under the control of Israel, has been since 1967. Before that, under Jordanian rule, Jews were banned from the Old City. The broader city today has a diverse population that includes Jewish Israelis, Muslim Israelis, a few Christian Israelis, Palestinian Muslims, a handful of Palestinian Christians, plus a constant flow of visitors from abroad. In addition, most Palestinians from the adjacent West Bank are allowed to visit on a controlled basis, for religious purposes only.

Israel gained control of Jerusalem in 1967 the same way the Muslims did in the seventh century: Military conquest legitimized by Sacred Scriptures.

As we all know, Jerusalem is a sacred city to several religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam (by order of historical appearance). At the center of the preoccupations of the three monotheistic religions is a place called the Temple Mount. It’s the spot known as the last Jewish temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD (or “Common Era”). The supposed last vestige of the Jewish Temple standing is the Western Wall (also, “Wall of Lamentations” for Jews) where Jews from everywhere, including Israel come to pray. The Christian Gospels show Jesus visiting the same temple several times including shortly before his crucifixion. Muslims revere the area because the Prophet Muhammad is said to have started there his whirlwind “Night Visit” to Heaven. It’s so important to Muslims that they built there not one but two mosques after they conquered the city in 630. One of the two mosques, the Dome of the Rock, is supposed to have been established over the place where Abraham sacrificed his son (one of his sons, not the same son, depending on which religious tradition).

Now, Jews are forbidden by Israeli law as a well as by some rabbinical religious decisions to visit the area occupied by the mosques. It is administered jointly by a Muslim clerical organization and by Jordan (Reminder: Jordan is an Arab country with a peace treaty with Israel.) Two consequences. First, frictions between Jewish worshipers and Muslim worshipers in the area are rare although they pray within a stone throw of each other. (Metaphor not chose at random.) Second, the top of the Temple Mount, the largest part of the area where the two mosques stand, is very seldom visited by Jews at all. It’s overwhelmingly used by Muslims, day in and day out. Repeating: If you threw a stone in the air on an average day while standing in that area, it would fall down on a Muslim or on no one at all. (Christians seem to not be much interested in visiting that particular spot.)

Following the assassination of two of its policemen last week, Israel took common sense security measures against repeated acts of terrorism in the Temple Mount mosques area. By the way, the two Israeli policemen assassinated were not Jews. They were Druze, people whom some Muslims consider Muslim and many not. No one, at any rate, thinks Druze are Jewish. The fact is that the assassinated police officers were working security in or near an area frequented by devout Muslims, rather that one of the many more numerous Israeli Jewish policemen (or worse, policewomen). This suggests to me that official Israeli policy was reasonably alert to Muslim faithful’s sensitivities.

The Israeli authorities took two new security measures (amazingly late in the game, if you consider the volatility of the area). They installed both surveillance cameras and metal detectors on the access points to the mosques esplanade. That’s was precipitated the rioting and yet more deaths, plus, the formal declaration of the Palestinian Authority that it was stopping all contacts with Israel (of which, more later). Now, I can sort of understand the Palestinians’ objection to the cameras. Many must imagine that Israel will use the film to spy on them further although it’s difficult to see how or what that would accomplish beside identifying criminals after the fact. The metal detectors are the same tools in place in almost every airport in the world. They can help intercept guns and knives.

Refer back up to the description of who spends time in the mosques area: Muslims. So here you have it: Palestinians, who have to be almost all Muslims, are rioting violently to protest security measures that will protect…Muslims. What serves as their government, the Palestinian Authority, cuts off contact with Israel also in protest. But Israel acts as a customs office for the said Authority. It collects monies on its behalf and faithfully hands them over. Palestinians protest common sense Israeli action that protect them by making it even more difficult for their government to do its job. By doing so, they create more of a vacuum, that Israel will, of necessity, have to fill.

Some Palestinian leaders think that if they force others to shed Palestinian blood very publicly, the world is going to take pity and come and impose the kind of settlement they want. The calculus is going on seventy years old. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again and it never works….

A personal note. I have had several Palestinian friends; they were easy to like for their warmth, for their courtesy, for their generosity. That’s on the one hand. I also think Palestinians are victims of history; that they have been paying for seventy years for the crimes of others. On the other hand, I have not much appreciated the Israelis I have known. They tend to have the smoothness of raw alligator skin, pretty much what you would expect of people reared in a garrison state. Politically, however, it’s very hard to be a friend of Palestinians. You try  and try, and then, they go and do something insane like this.

In case you wonder: I am not Jewish, never have been. I was raised a Catholic and I have been religiously indifferent as far back as I remember. I know my Bible pretty well (Old and New Testament). I try to study the Koran. It’s tough going because I am usually told that the translation I can understand is not legitimate. I am familiar with the Hadith second-hand (like most Muslims actually because few know Arabic).  I listen to Tariq Ramadan, a cleric or a philosopher connected to the Muslim brotherhood who speaks beautiful French and who seems to have made it his mission to explain Islam to intelligent and educated infidels. (That would be me, for example.)