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James M. Dorsey

In The Black Hole: James M. Dorsey on the Battle for the Soul of Islam

The Battle for the Soul of Islam

Pakistan ranks high on the list of Muslim-majority countries in which significant segments of the population are in religious terms militantly ultra-conservative. It’s a country where the impact of decades of Saudi funding of ultra-conservative religious thinking has left deep inroads.

It’s also a country in which numerous people over the years have been killed or lynched by outraged individuals or mobs over allegations of blasphemy or for expressing opposition to harsh laws that mandate the death sentence for blasphemy. Since 1990, more than 80 people have been killed in such violence. This month, a Chinese national was remanded in custody after protesters accused him of blasphemy.

This makes a discussion with a Pakistani audience about the battle for the soul of Islam, the rivalry in the Muslim world over what constitutes ‘moderate’ Islam, the need for reform of religious jurisprudence, and the competition for religious soft power in the Muslim world, particularly interesting.

Pervez Hoodhboy, a prominent nuclear scientist and human rights activist, hosts regular in-person and online discussions at The Black Hole, a community center in Islamabad that seeks to foster critical debate. This week, Pervez kindly hosted me for a discussion about what I describe as The Battle for the Soul of Islam. This is a transcript of the discussion, lightly edited for clarity. The discussion is also available in audio and video.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (00:08):

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to The Black Hole.

We are talking today about important changes happening in the Muslim world from where we are here in Islamabad. This is a city of madrassahs, of mosques, and we can hear what sort of kutbas (sermons) are given over there, but living here in Pakistan, we don’t know very much about what is happening in the rest of the world. Important changes have happened and are happening there to tell us exactly what’s going on.

We’ve invited Dr. James M. Dorsey, who is a journalist, a very fine journalist, has won many awards. He’s based in Singapore, is the author of many books and his area of expertise is the Middle East and Indonesia, Malaysia. He has been looking at these areas of the world with the particular eye of what is happening at the level of society, at the level of government, and how religious leaders over there are changing Islam.

(01:50)
Now, I know that this very title, the Battle for the Soul of Islam and the subtitle that Islam is changing. Well, some people may not like that very much. They think that Islam is something that is fixed for all times to come. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but think about Christianity. Is the Christianity today the Christianity of Jesus Christ? Is it the Christianity of the Middle Ages and the Popes, or is it the Christianity of the reformation that followed? Or is it the Christianity that is now in Europe where it is rapidly losing ground or is it the Christianity of the United States where it is gaining ground or at least has gained a huge amount of ground. So, all these are issues that one must keep in mind when last, what is a religion? Is the religion what is in the holy text or is it the practise of that religion? Well, now I’ll go to Dr. James M. Dorsey. James, welcome and it’s so good to have you here. Thank you for speaking to us.

James M. Dorsey (03:17):

It’s great to be with you Perez and with the audience and it’s a pleasure to be in The Black Hole. Thank you for having me.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (03:27):

Well, perhaps you could tell us your impression of the changes that that are happening in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, in the UAE (and) elsewhere, wherever you are looking and you have been writing very prolifically about these issues. You have a book and  you also have a blog and you have many interviews and podcasts and so forth, so you have an enormous amount to tell us. I’ll leave it up to you to give us a bird’s eye view and then we can get into a conversation.

James M. Dorsey (04:09):

Sure. Let me make some introductory remarks if you wish. Let me draw one distinction, which is I think an important distinction in the comparison that you made with Christianity and that is that Christianity, of course is a centralised institution, at least the Catholic church, and it’s a hierarchical institution and that’s what sets it apart, both from Islam, whether Shia or Sunni, as well as from Judaism that are in a sense decentralised religions, not centralised religions. Now having said that, the reason I call this the battle for the soul of Islam is the following. Certainly ever since  2001, since the 9/11 attacks, Muslim leaders, both religious and political, went to great pains to emphasise that Islam was a peaceful religion, which I’m not denying and that the extremist expressions of it, be it ultra-conservative forms of Islam such as Wahabbism, be it  jihadists in the form of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic state, that those were not Islamic expressions. They were beyond the pale of Islam and the Muslim religious and political leaders were supported in that by world leaders who didn’t want to be seen to be anti-Muslim as such.

(05:52)
And so what you’ve had is a quest for what is then called moderate Islam. What that meant over the last two decades was until about eight years ago, roughly until the rise of Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman in Saudi Arabia, what you had was what I would describe as a lot of formalistic, celebratory conferences by Muslim leaders in which they issued declarations in terms of interfaith dialogue, in terms of minority rights, in terms of condemnations of extremism and jihadism. But it all remained in the realm of declarations. Nothing on the ground changed. With the rise of Mohammed bin Salman and also the increasing power that Mohammed bin Zayed  in the United Arab Emirates acquired, first as Crown Prince and now as president, we’ve seen significant social change, lifting the ban on women’s driving in Saudi Arabia being an example, and far more liberal legislation in many ways in the United Arab Emirates and also in Saudi Arabia.

(07:25)
The introduction of western style entertainment as an important sector of the economy, loosening of gender segregation measures and so on. What we have not seen, or let me put this differently, all of these changes and reforms are driven in my mind by three things. One is a new generation of leadership. Mohammed bin Salman is in his 30s. Mohammed bin Zed is in his fifties. They’re not octegenarians like the older generation of Saudi rulers. That’s one reason. The second reason is the need to reform, the need to reform economically, the need to build economies that are less dependent on oil and gas exports, the need to create jobs. And that leads me to the third driver, which is regime survival. These leaders understand that they need to cater to at least social and economic, perhaps not political aspirations, in countries whose populations are in majority under 30. In other words, a very young population. That whole notion of social and economic reform that does not incorporate reform of religious law has been the driver of what I would call an autocratic form of moderate Islam.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (09:35):

What I would like to know is: these changes in Saudi Arabia have happened and they have been acclaimed by the younger generation there, but certainly there was a lot of opposition from the old guard, from other people in the royal family too. So how could these changes have been implemented without some religious decree who has been saying that it’s okay for women to drive it? Isn’t there a fatwa which says that it’s okay or it’s not okay? Who’s giving the fatwas in Saudi Arabia and UAE?

James M. Dorsey (10:26):

I think there are several issues here and let me take what you said further in terms of potential opposition to these changes. It’s not just the older generation. There’s a young Saudi scholar who did an informal survey a couple of years ago among Saudi youth, among his peers in which he asked them what was important to them and they said first they wanted jobs. Second of all, they wanted to have fun and third of all they wanted to date. And so the young scholar asked the people he was polling, oh, does that mean that your sister can date? Oh no, was the answer. Not them. So, with other words, you’re dealing with a country that has been ultra-conservative for all of its existence except for the last eight years, and changing those attitudes is not something that’s going to happen overnight.

(11:39)
In addition, you have a social stratification, so with other words, you are going to find that some segments of youth in second and third tier Saudi cities are more conservative than those that are in Riyad or in Jeddah or Dammam. And that has another consequence, which is a risk factor for Mohammed bin Salman. The opportunities are first and foremost in Saudi Arabia’s top tier cities, and he needs to ensure that those benefits get broadened out so that others beyond the top tier cities benefit in into an equal degree. Now he’s been able to enforce these changes and let’s be clear, Saudi Arabia in many ways has changed. Those reforms are real, and if you are a woman who can afford the driver’s lessons and who can afford a car, life has changed fundamentally. So I think you got to recognise that. But the way Mohammed bin Salman has achieved that is by creating the most oppressive regime that Saudi Arabia has known. There is no space for any kind of criticism or dissent, and, if anything, it’s become, remember the Ritz Carlton where Mohammed bin Salman took down parts of the elite in 2017 when he arrested them basically in a power and money grab, shook them down, or the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Just in the last several months, you’ve had people who’ve sent out a tweet sentenced to prison sentences of up to 45 years in prison.

(14:00)
So whatever criticism there may be cannot be voiced in any form or fashion. Now the final  point I want to make is that Mohamed bin Salman is quoted as saying, and I think he’s probably right, in defence of the lifting of the ban on women’s driving was that women rode camels at the time of the Prophet. If they were able to ride camels of at the time of the Prophet why would they not be able to drive cars or trucks or whatever else today? I think part of what we saw in terms of ultra-conservative practice in Saudi Arabia, but you also see in parts of Pakistan of course, is more grounded in cultural history rather than in religious law. Let me just finally say that this is not to say that, and we’ll delve into that somewhat deeper later in this conversation that there is no need for change of religious law. There is, without question.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (15:22):

If one looks at Islamic history, Al-Ghazali looked at the issue of the Islamic state, which of course is not specified in the Qur’an or the Hadith (the sayings and deeds of the Prophet_ It’s absolutely silent there. But Al-Ghazali, through his legalistic reasoning came to the conclusion that a Muslim should obey the ruler, and even if the ruler is unjust, he must be obeyed. Is this the kind of argument that Muhammad bin Salman is using to justify his actions that I am the ruler, I have legitimacy because of my dissent and therefore you must do, as I say,

James M. Dorsey (16:19):

As you well know, there’s been great debate within Islam for centuries about the principle of obedience to the ruler. I think that part of the notion of that obedience and the role of the state goes back to basically Ahmet Kuru, a Turkish-American Islam and Middle East scholar at a university in California, who talks about the state-ulema (Muslim religious scholars) alliance. And in a nutshell, what he says is that up until the 10th or the 11th century, the ulema were independent. In fact, they were often merchants and if they were not merchant Hanafi (the founder of one of Sunni Islam’s four legal schools) was a merchant and a wealthy merchant. And if they were not merchants themselves, then they were funded by the merchant class. And what happened in the 11th century is that the military state arose in the Islamic world and in that military state, the ulema lost their independence and more or less were forced to become state employees and therefore the principle of obedience became much more central. It’s not a principle that is universally accepted, but it is what grounds my notion of a autocratic form of moderate Islam.

(18:14)
It’s a debate that is now being fueled by what is the Muslim world’s most powerful and largest civil society movement. And that’s a movement in Indonesia. In February, so two month ago, the movement held an international conference of Ulema, which was attended by very senior Saudi Saudi clerics, including Mohamed Al-Issa from the world Muslim League , as well as Sheikh Shawki Alam, Egypt’s Grand Mufti and various Al-Azhar luminaries. And in that conference, Nahdlatul Ulama, the Indonesian group, called for the abolition of the concept of the caliphate. And the argument behind that was twofold. One is that the notion of a nation-state is not anchored in Islamic law, yet we live in a world that is organised around nation-states and we live in a world in which the notion of a caliphate, a unified state for all Muslims, no longer is fit for purpose. And so that revives the whole debate about what is the state in Islamic law and what should that state be.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (20:12):

So glad you raised this issue of the caliphate or the khilafa as we call it. You’re absolutely right. It’s not mandated in Islam, certainly not in the Qur’an or the Hadith. And we know that Prophet Mohammed did not nominate a successor. Had he done that, maybe we would’ve been spared the Shia Sunni divide. We would not have had the bloody wars of succession that came later. But the fact is that the caliphate has been around for a very long time until it was abolished in 1924 in Turkey. And for a long time, it remained dormant and then came along Daesh (the Islamic State) and Daesh. It revived the caliphate with Al-Baghdadi as its caliph. So, it’s good that Nahdlaltul Ulama has come out with such a strong statement that the caliphate does not belong to Islam. What exactly did they say? Can you tell us?

James M. Dorsey (21:48):

Let me be clear. I think I would differ with you on one point. The caliphate is grounded in Islamic law and that is the problem. What is not grounded in Islamic law is the notion of a nation-state. So, in terms of the notion of what statehood constitutes in Islamic law, it is in a state structure that encompasses the whole Muslim world, and yet we live in nation-states. Nahdlatul Ulama’s argument is that that needs to be addressed for Islamic law to be able to function correctly in a modern world. There’s also a second reason why it is and that is that what you correctly noted the Islamic state or Daesh grounds its ideology, its religious beliefs, in the notion of the caliphate and in various other concepts within Islamic law. And so, if you really want to be struggling against extremism and against Jihadism, you’re going to have to deprive extremists and jihadists of the opportunity to justify their actions and their beliefs with Islamic law.

(23:39)
And that is the whole thinking behind this. Now, let me just briefly explain what Nahdaltul Ulama constitutes. Indonesia is a country of 270 million people, 90 million Indonesians follow Nahdlatul Ulama. That is to say one third of the population. This is an organisation that is a hundred years old. It was founded a century ago for two reasons, one to counter Wahhabi incursions in parts of Sumatra, and two, because as you referred to earlier, the abolition by a Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, which Nahdlatul Ulama at the time believed created a void that needed to be filled.

(25:11)
But what I think is important here is the way Nahdlatul Ulama is positioning a lot of this stuff. It is not just simply Islam is in need of reform and that’s what they are going to do. This is  an organisation with a religious structure and authority of its own. So, when it started with reforms, it was a convention of 20,000 religious scholars in 2019, that abolished the concept of the kafir (infidel) and replaced it in a fatwa with the concept of a citizen. On doing so, what it’s trying to do, and we can get into that in greater detail later if there’s interest in that, is not just reform Islam, but also constitute a model for the same kind of reform that is needed in other major religions, be that Judaism, be that Christianity, be that Hinduism, and it is actually engaging with groups in the Hindu world, in the Christian world, in the Jewish world, to try and further that notion,

Pervez Hoodbhoy (26:34):

If we look at reforms in various religions, Christianity began with Luther and the Reformation. That then affected the Jews in Europe as well. If we look at Islam and Hinduism in the 18th century or so, well, you had people like Muhammad Abdu and Rashid Rida (two late 19th, early 20th century Muslim scholars) in Egypt who were inspired by some of the enlightenment ideals and they sought to bring conformity between Islam and the modern world in the subcontinent. You had a few people, not very many, but there was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and there was Ameer Ali. Yes, they were under the influence of the British colonial masters, and they wanted India and Indian Muslims to go along that path. The Hindus were also affected by the British in that way. And so you had the reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and they wanted to end the class system, et cetera. What is driving Nahdlatul Ulama? It’s clearly something that’s pretty big that you’ve got a hundred million followers or 90 as you said, but where does their impetus come from? Is it by looking at the modern world? Are they striving for enlightenment, ideals island, the European Enlightenment, what do they want?

James M. Dorsey (28:37):

Before I answer the question, let me draw one or two distinctions. I mentioned earlier in Christianity that you had a centralised institution, which I think makes a major difference. And Martin Luther was in essence a split-off from that centralised institution and the bargain that ultimately was concluded in Christianity was that the institution, the Catholic church, retreated to the realm of spirituality. It surrendered its worldly, temporal powers to the secular state and retreated to the Vatican, a small island in Italy, in Rome. That model is obviously not applicable to Islam, or for that matter to Judaism. I think the second distinction one has to draw is, and in a sense you drew that implicitly in your remarks just now, is that past proponents of reform in Islam were individual thinkers, maybe small groups of thinkers. They were not organisations with the kind of power that Nahdlatul Ulama represents. And to give you two more indications of its power, it has a five million-strong man and woman militia, aparamilitary militia. Its political party has four cabinet ministers.

(30:30)
None of the past reformers could even come near to projecting that kind of power and that kind of influence. What drives them is that they’re a movement comes out of Java. They’re not a liberal movement, they’re a conservative movement, a socially conservative movement, perhaps even a politically conservative movement, but they’re grounded in Sufism, they’re grounded in Javan culture. The socialisation of Islam in Indonesia was not one that was carried out by the sword, it was through assimilation, an accommodation, and I think that’s what makes Nahdlatul Ulama in a lot of ways different from the kind of Islam that you see in the Middle East or for that matter in Pakistan.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (31:39):

Yes, it’s fascinating. Islam came here through the sword, but in Indonesia it came via trade and that made all the difference. We can’t even imagine that a person like (prominent Pakistani Islamic scholar) Javed Ahmed Ghamidi would ever be leading any kind of a big movement. He does have an organisation called Al-Mawrid. But it’s handful of people, nothing much more than that. And there you say it’s 90 million and they’ve got ministers and everything. They also have had one president. But explain one thing. You said that they’re politically conservative and socially conservative. What does that mean?

James M. Dorsey (32:36):

What it means is in in terms of social conservatism, in contrast to the developments that you’re seeing in the west, it views the family as the core nuclear unit of society They’re also politically conservative. Nahdlatul Ulama’s relationships are on the centre right, and in some cases, even on the far right. Now, I would argue that its relationships with the centre are where Nahdlatul is politically, whereas it’s relationships with certain far right groups, for example, the (Hindu nationalist) RSS in India is really designed to achieve a strategic goal rather than based necessarily on a common ideology. But they are, having said that, they are conservative.

(33:51)
Democracy is a core principle to them. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority state and the world’s largest Muslim democracy, and that’s not something they want to change. On the contrary, that is something they want to uphold. They’re strong believers in pluralism and as I mentioned before in the example of abolishing the category of a kafir and replacing it with the notion of a citizen, it’s equality and equity for all irrespective of race, ethnicity, religion. To give you one example, last year the Minister of Religious Affairs in Indonesia who is a member of Nahdlatul Ulama, he’s the former head of their militia, was criticised for congratulating the Bahais on one of their holidays and in response to the criticism, he said, they are Indonesian citizens, even if it’s not one of the six religions that Indonesia officially recognises, they are Indonesian citizens and that’s as such I greet them.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (35:29):

So, would they subscribe to the UN Declaration on human rights? Would they have reservations about it or would they endorse it wholeheartedly?

James M. Dorsey (35:42):

One of the major distinctions I think between Nahdlatul Ulama and many other Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, which only conditionally endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and are particularly concerned about the articles 18 and 19 that relate to religious freedom, Nahdlatul Ulama endorses the declaration, unambiguously no conditions, no restrictions.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (36:31):

Okay, I’ll ask just one question and then open it up to the audience. The Pakistani notion or the sub continental notion of Islam is that it’s a complete code of life that everything that you want to know about the world is there in the Quran or can be interpreted from it through [inaudible]. Is there a break with that in Indonesia with the [inaudible]?

James M. Dorsey (37:08):

Look, I think that Nahdlatul Ulama like any other Muslim or Muslim organisation views the Qur’an as the word of God. I don’t think that they view the Sharia and the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence as the word of God and therefore unalterable and in fact that what they’re doing and what they’re arguing for is change and reform of those, some of the concepts within the Sharia and within Islamic jurisprudence, particularly those that propagate supremacy, that propagate differences based on religion or ethnicity or race. So, I think that’s the distinction one has to make.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (38:18):

Okay, good. Then we move on to the audience and questions from there.

Question 1 from the audience (38:28):

I do not have a question because I’m very clear about it. There are clarifications which I want to make. First of all, as far as the obedience to the state is concerned, the concept of state is within the Qur’anic verses. You are the one nation that has been arisen for the whole people. So, the nation and the state is within the Islamic concepts. Secondly, there is also a verse which says: ‘Obey Allah and his Prophet Mohammed, and the one who is in power. The third point, which I want to raise, is that there are certain things which under Islamic law or within the Qur’anic principles cannot be changed. And for that matter, since you are a very learned person, I will request you to read Ashatibi Almoafika Lashati. Please write it down, and especially it’s volume five, then you would understand and differentiate between the concepts of Islam that cannot be changed at all, whether the whole world likes them or not.

(40:33)
Like jihad, like haj, like prayers, like zakat, like right to live, right to own property, like right to one’s honour. They are the things which are very much settled within the Qur’anic verses and the sayings of the Prophet. So that were my comments. Otherwise, your lecture was good and it is an eye-opener and I am really delighted, but I think that we should also try to distinguish between those concepts which are not changing at all and the concepts which can be changed, and those concepts are those which do not directly interfere with the set principles. Likewise, you are saying, you have given quoted an example of Indonesia that they are trying to reform. Reformation is always there, and the reformations can be done when these reformations do not directly contravene the set principles of Islamic law or what has been enshrined within the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (41:59):

Okay, thank you for the comment. We will go to the next question, but before that, let me say that the question of nation-state is not a solved one in Islam. In fact, if you read (prominent 29th century Pakistani Muslim thinker) Maulana Maududi what he wrote in 1934 or so about the Islamic riayasat, Islamic state. He said Islam does not specify a state because the concept of state did not exist. The concept of a geographical boundary came with the treaty of Westphalia om 1648, much, much, much later. And this is why he said: ‘I do not approve of the concept of Pakistan.’ This is why he was against Mohamed Ali Jinnah and until he was convinced by (South Asian philosopher)Allah May Iqbal he remained in opposition to the idea of Pakistan. So you cannot say that here is a man who did not know nothing. He was after all a very learned person.

James M. Dorsey (43:26):

First of all, thank you for the comment. Let me be very clear, I’m not an Islamic scholar, nor am I a lawyer, and so I do not pretend to have an expertise in Islamic law as such. Now having said that, I think what is evident is that there is great debate about a lot of the points that the speaker and the audience just raised, and that debate is among Islamic scholars. That’s not a debate among laymen. What I am doing is taking note of that debate and taking note of the fact that one of the most powerful movements in the Islamic world today is challenging a lot of those notions. Now let me be very clear. What I’m not saying is that Nahdlatul Ulama or those that favour reform, and you similar kinds of calls for reforms in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere today, in fact published in official Saudi media.

(44:43)
What I’m not saying is that the call is for a wholesale setting aside of Islamic law. A lot of those rights that you mentioned are not being questioned. Yes. What is being questioned are very specifically at least three things. One is what Perez just noted, the issue of what constitutes the state and whether that, and I, unless I misunderstood you, read what you were saying as a concept for the state for all Muslims, that notion is being challenged in a world in which we live in nation-states. We don’t live in a Christian state that encompasses Christians across the globe. We don’t live in a Jewish state that encompasses Jews across the globe and we don’t live in a state of Hindus or Muslims that encompasses all Hindus or Muslims in the state. In that sense, the argument is that Islamic law needs to be updated and adjusted to come to grips with the reality that we live in.

Questioner 1 (45:59)
My name is Ave and I’m also a masters in Sharia and I’m a masters in corporate law and I’m a lawyer as well.

James M. Dorsey (50:28):

You are everything I am not.

Questioner 1(50:34):

So whatever I have said that I stand by it and I am pretty much sure that there are so many things with actually need reformation and Islamic jurisprudence, but these reformations have to be seen on the touchstone of the set principles of Sharia and if they are not against it, then the reformations can be made, whatever they may be. Thank you. Okay,

James M. Dorsey (51:04):

Fair enough, This is a debate among Muslim scholars, which I am describing. It’s not a debate in which I claim to want to take the position. I may have my personal views on it, but that’s neither here nor there nor there. Professionally, if you wish, my obligation is to describe this debate and to watch this debate and observe it.

Questioner 2 from the audience (51:39):

Sir, is it true that Indonesia had a president from Nahdlatul Ulama? Wahid or Wahidi in the last century. The other day I interviewed an Indian, an American scholar who is of an Indian background and he told me, he’s a Muslim, Dr. Muktader Khan, that 57 per cent ofAmerican Muslims are okay with gay marriage. So, is that an indication of reformation within Islam? Others will describe it as heresy. So, there was Jabber Al-Alwani in America. He was the head of the Fiqh Council of North America. So he came up with some interesting ideas and some ideas came from (Tunisian Islamist) Rashed Ghannouci and there was another guy in Sudan who was initially a Muslim brotherhood person, but then he changed many of his positions. I think Hasan al-Turabi was his name. So how do you rate these individuals and these movements?

James M. Dorsey (52:48):

Okay, several things here. First of all, it may very well be that a majority of American Muslims favour LGBTQ. I don’t know if that’s true or not true. What I do know is that for example, last year you had a joining of forces of a Muslim community in Dearborn, Michigan with conservative Christian elements to object to the inclusion in school libraries of certain literature which would indicate that there there’s division on that issue within the American Muslim community. What I do think, just to take this a step back, and I’ve been involved as Pervez knows, in quite a bit of discussion around the LGBTQ issue, particularly as it arose in connection to the Qatar World Cup and whether or not Qatar should be recognising the rights of LGBTQ fans coming to Qatar to attend the World Cup.

(54:12)
And the argument I was making and still make in various debates, is that in the debate about rights in Qatar, there was in my mind a serious distinction between workers’ rights, where by and large Qataris did not have a fundamental problem with it. There were issues that they thought needed to be resolved to ensure certain things, for example, the safety of bank accounts being accessed by expatriate managers in a country with no extradition treaties. So, therefore you could essentially go to the bank, empty the account and head for the airport and nobody was going to stop you. That there was a distinction between those kind of issues and rights and the issues of LGBTQ, and what I think the experience is, and again, if you look at Turkey or Indonesia, both countries that do both Muslim majority countries that do not outlaw LGBTQ and yet those are socially difficult issues and therefore if there were to be any change, it would be change that would have to be gradual, and in which you would have to have a popular buy-in. You can’t impose it from the outside or from the top down.

(55:47)
With regard to people like Hassan Turab whom you referred to, I don’t know that Turabi really moved away from his positions. Turabi was a western educated, highly intellectual, religious and political thinker who was very influential together with Sadiq al-Mahdi in terms of where the of regime of Omar al-Bashir was going. But I don’t know that they fundamentally changed their views in the later stages of their life.

Questioner 3 from the audience (56:41):

Hello, this is far. I got your emails as well. Thanks for all of them.

James M. Dorsey (56:46):

Well you’re welcome. I’m glad to hear a reader.

Questioner 3 (56:50):

Two quick questions and comments. First, the battle for the soul of Islam I think should also be looked through the first women revolution that is happening in Iran. I would like to know your views on the ongoing movement there. Secondly, what about the political economy of Nahdlatul Ulama? Do they get petro dollars? Which classes economically support them in Indonesia? How do they maintain their massive network economically? Number three, the Protestant movement was also a response to massive changes. Feudalism broke down and a new economic system was taking shape when it came up. That kind of thing is not happening in the Muslim world. Hence I think when we keep looking at the text, this is very problematic to understand the religion and the critical expressions of it, such as Nahdlatul Ulama, what we need to do is to look at the material forces which enable them, which empower them. Looking at text remains a sort of an orientalist practise. I would like to know your opinion on that too. Thank you.

James M. Dorsey (58:11):

Sure. With regard to the uprising that we’ve seen in Iran, I lived in Iran during the revolution. I lived there from 1978 to 1981 and have been back there frequently. Iran is a revolution that’s gone off the rails and most revolutions frankly go off the rails. Ultimately you have an Iran and a autocratic, totally corrupt regime, and if you ask many Iranians today, they will tell you we know what an Islamic group state is, and we have no desire to maintain that. And that’s what you’re seeing expressed in those demonstrations. Again, I don’t think those demonstrations are about jurisprudential reform. They’re about social and political reform and they’re about a population that is being economically squeezed on the one hand by mismanagement of the economy domestically, but obviously also as a result of crippling and harsh US sanctions, which one can question whether they work or not.

(59:39)
In terms of, and I’ll come to your second question in a moment, but in terms of whether or not one needs to focus on jurisprudential reform rather than social political reform, what I’m not arguing is that one should not focus on social and political reform reform. Absolutely, one should. What I am arguing is that unless you also look at jurisprudential reform, you’re going to have certain sets of problems irrespective of what happens. So, if it’s talking about Islamic law and we’re talking about the quests that a minority, but nonetheless a substantial number of Muslims supported in terms of the jihad as propagated by the Islamic state, for example, that is grounded in what Nahdlatul Ulama would call obsolete, outdated, or problematic notions of religious law. The same can be said about this government in Israel and the way the grounding of its notions. In my mind, you can trace the kind of humiliation and brutality that Israel exercises in Palestinian territories back to Jewish law.

(01:01:38)
Or for that matter, some of the RSS ideology. So with other words, there is relevance and importance to the need to reform religious law, but it’s not the one and only thing, it’s not the panacea for the solution of all problems. It’s one significant element of a broader pallet of reforms that countries and religious groups need to undertake. And regarding your third question, this is in terms of social stratification of the movement, it’s goes across social classes. If you’re talking about a third of the population, you’re talking about significant social stratification. So, it goes from the elite all the way down to people in villages in Java. The movement is largely, if I’m not incorrect self-funding. There’s funding for certain institutions, for example, universities, religious seminaries, but by and large this is an independent, a totally independent movement, independent in every sense of the word. Yes, it’s correct. Abdurhaman Wahid, who was probably one of the movement’s great visionaries was the first democratically elected president of Indonesia after the overthrow of the Suharto regime in 1998, and he was the leader of Nahdlatul Ulama.

Questioner 4 from the audience (01:03:46):

Thank you very much for the enlightenment. My question is about  religion. Okay, keep the Islam outside of that for the moment, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism, is there any basic law which is established in their sacred texts and they are challenging with time? This is one question. Is there some example that in different religions except Islam. A second question is about the Islam. There are some rules which is established in sacred text like slavery. You cannot declare it salvery in your constitution law or any law other, although it is established in the sacred text. The second is the banking system, the interest which is established all over the world, including the Islamic world, but they cannot say, they cannot deviate from them. So there are many examples which is, so I want these two opinion from independent interpreter. Thank you very much.

James M. Dorsey (01:05:06):

Thank you for the question. First of all, I think that Islam and Judaism, in contrast to Christianity and Hinduism, and I frankly don’t know a lot about Hinduism, but as a matter of principle, Islam and Judaism have clearly defined bodies of law and bodies of jurisprudence far more so than either Christianity or Hinduism. In Judaism, there’s constant debate. In fact, one of the principles of the Jewish equivalent of a madrassa is debate and continuous questioning, which is one reason why, for example, the Israeli military is one of the very few militaries where soldiers can question an officer’s command. Most militaries are hierarchies. I tell you what you do and you march and what happens if you don’t march. So, there is continuous debate. Like all religions. Christianity is a very fractured religion, and those fractures essentially are reflections of questioning. So I would argue that the issue of debate about reform within religion or within faith groups is more or less universal, certainly among the major world’s major faith groups. I think what the difference is, and that’s the difference both within Islam but also certainly with Judaism, that at the moment you have a movement questioning a number of these things that is very powerful. It’s not just an intellectual exercise and it’s powerful and that makes a substantial difference.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (01:07:38):

I’ll just make one comment over here that Hinduism has a lot of stories about gods and goddesses, but it is not codified the way Islam and Judaism and Christianity are. There are the laws of Manu. It is said that if you have a war, then how should the bounty be distributed? Who should be king? How shoud your temples are to be preserved. Those sort of details are present over there, but they don’t tell you detailed laws about inheritance and so forth.

Questioner 5 from the audience (01:08:19):

Sir, my question is, as you say that Islam is a peaceful religion, so on the other hand, in Islam, the Qur’an, also give us the order to do jihad. So I would like to know what is a peaceful religion?

James M. Dorsey (01:08:40):

Look, first of all, I think just as a matter of principle, and this you know as well as I do, jihad means different things to different people. And so what I do think is, and I think that’s true for Islam as well as for Judaism and for Christianity, you can find in the texts whatever it is you want to find, and you can interpret that in whatever way you wish to interpret it. So extremists, jihadists interpret that in a certain way, a majority of Muslims interpret it very differently. And I think what this whole debate about reform of Islam is about accommodating to the world we live in, but it’s also trying to shape what these laws mean and what these legal concepts entail so that we don’t get into the issues of religious extremism, whether that’s jihadists or whether that’s Jewish messianism or Christian nationalism or Hindu nationalism. for that matter.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (01:10:15):

Okay. If there are no more questions then, or there is one small question.

Questioner 9 from the audience (01:10:26):

Do you think Saudi, the regime which is doing so many changes, would they also stop funding jihadist groups, especially in Pakistan where we are the victims?

James M. Dorsey (01:10:39):

Look, I think they have stopped. There’s been, first of all, certainly from the period of the early 1970s, but starting with the 1960s when Maududi was a key player in the formulation of the concepts of the Rabita, the Muslim World League as well as the Islamic University in Medina, and going forward from the 1970s until 2015, Saudi Arabia spent a humongous amount of money on supporting not just Wahhabism, but I think supporting ultra-conservative Muslim movements. And the key there was not so much the religious aspect, but as long as they were anti-Iran and anti Shiite, they qualified.

(01:11:35)
If I’m not incorrect, there’s a famous letter that Abdulaziz Bin Baz, the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, wrote in I think the 1980s to the Deobandis in which he said, paraphrased, we differ on multiple issues, but we will support you because it serves the purpose of the Saudi state. I think you’ve seen a significant cutback in terms of Saudi’s support for ultra-conservative religious groups since the rise of the Salmans and in fact, look at the Grand Mosque Brussels, which was very problematic because it was one of the few Saudi funded mosques outside of the kingdom that was actually being run by Saudi nationals who were Wahhabis and were increasingly coming into conflict with the Belgian government. And Mohammed bin Salman basically said, here’s the mosque, take it over, want nothing more to do with it. I think what you’re seeing now, and you’ve seen over the last eight years that it may not be Saudi Arabia as the country, the Arab country, that is the foremost funder of all kinds of non-state actors. There’s a lot more of that coming out of the United Arab Emirates today. And to the degree that the Saudis were willing to do that under the Salmans, and even that is starting to change now with the geopolitical changes we’re seeing in the Middle East, it was to serve a geopolitical purpose rather than a religious purpose.

Questioner 2 (01:13:38):

Yeah. The other day somebody told me that there are so many incomplete mosques and madrassas in Punjab because the Saudi funding has stopped.

James M. Dorsey (01:13:58):

That I don’t know. What I do know was, I was about four years ago part of a research that was funded out of Denmark but conducted in Pakistan that looked at the funding structure of madrassa in Pakistan. And at the time we concluded that only seven per cent of madrassas’ funding came from outside of Pakistan.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (01:14:32):

That could very well be true, but there’s also one other factor, which is that the money transfer from Saudi Arabia or the UAE doesn’t necessarily go through the government. It could go through private individuals who have business interests in Pakistan, and that’s the more usual way of transferring funds, I think.

James M. Dorsey (01:14:54):

Well, that’s certainly true. That’s something we’ve looked at. It’s something that I’ve looked at in great detail. So with other words, when we talk about Saudi funding, it’s sort of one of these catchall phrases and it’s particularly imprecise. There were monies that were going through the Dawa departments of Saudi embassies overseas. There were monies that were going through what I would call governmental, non-governmental organisations such as the Muslim World League and other organisations that have since been closed down by the Saudis. There were monies that, for example, Sipah-e-Sahaba was collecting where the Saudis, in my mind looked the other way, but was they had their own operatives in Mecca and elsewhere in the kingdom who were collecting significant funds and there were monies of private individuals who when their employees returned back to Pakistan would be given a sum of money to build a mosque, which he did. He probably benefited from part of that money, but he built the mosque and that gave him in his hometown or home village significant prestige.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (01:16:27):

Okay. One very quick question before we go to the online questions.

Questioner 3 (01:16:33):

Just a hypothetical question regarding the Saudi. Had there been democracy in Saudi, could there this reform possible in Saudi uae?

James M. Dorsey (01:16:48):

Sorry, had there been democracy, what would be possible?

Pervez Hoodbhoy (01:16:51):

Would reform had been, have been possible if there had been a democracy rather than an autocrat in charge?

James M. Dorsey (01:17:02):

Well, the simple answer is in my mind, yes, but it raises a much more fundamental question that goes back to one of the very first questions that Pervez asked in terms of resistance to reforms in Saudi Arabia. And the question is whether these kind of reforms can be initiated top down or whether they have to come bottom up. Democracy obviously is the framework that would allow for a bottom up approach to reform.

Question 1 from the online audience (01:17:54):

James, since this session is running live on the Black Hole’s Facebook page, we have online audience as well and for their representation. I would like to put just a few questions out of many. Number one. Keeping the current trajectories that the UAE and other countries are following, what would be the possible future or what would be the consequences for Pakistan?

James M. Dorsey (01:18:42):

First of all, I think that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are very different countries. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as opposed to Pakistan, are very different countries. So I don’t know that that one can necessarily draw that comparison. And I think I would also be cautious to draw that a comparison because what is happening is in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is social and economic reform, but accompanied by increased political repression. And I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a model that Pakistan would want to follow. Now having said that, I also think that Pakistan has serious  problems when it comes to issues of mutual respect, of pluralism. I mean, what you don’t see in Saudi Arabia, the UAE are lynchings as you’ve seen in Pakistan for example. So as Pervez knows, I’ve travelled extensively to Pakistan over many decades and I think my impression has been that Pakistan is fundamentally an ultra-conservative country and once you leave the bubbles of the big cities, it’s a different world that you enter. So that process of change is probably going to be generational in Pakistan.

Pervez Hoodbhoy3 (01:20:41):

Go ahead.

Question 2 from the online audience (01:20:41):

The second question is from Remo. He asks, all those reforms you talked about in the recent years seem to be coming from the government due to the due to economic necessities. Why don’t we get to see a revolution from the grassroots level in Muslim countries, especially when their political and other freedoms are so bloodly repressed?

James M. Dorsey (01:21:11):

Okay, let me just clarify. When I was talking about Saudi Arabia and the UAE, those were reforms that were coming from the government. In Indonesia, it’s a different question. First of all, it’s a civil society movement and Indonesia is a democracy. Now, the government may be empathetic to much of what the civil society movement is doing, but it is a civil society movement. It’s not a government as such.

On the point of revolutions, let’s look at the last 13 years. You had in 2011 uprisings in multiple Arab countries. You had four Arab leaders toppled. I think that the counterrevolution that you saw primarily coming out of the UAE but also out of Saudi Arabia, that led to that was one factor, not the only factor, one factor that led to the 2013 military coup in Egypt, that has led to civil war in Libya, in Yemen, in Syria, that I think that had a dampening effect. But even if it did have a dampening effect, go to the last years of the last decade, so 2019, 2020, again, you had popular revolts that overthrew the leaders of four Arab countries, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan. Now again, you have a situation in which there’s been enormous strife in Sudan. We’re watching that at the moment as we speak with the confrontation between the Sudanese military and the RSF.

(01:23:38)
We’ve seen political instability in Iraq, the revolt in Algeria has stalled, and Lebanon is on the brink of collapse. Now, that’s not to say that we won’t see more revolts and, of course, now we’ve seen the revolt in Iran. I think we will continue to see revolts. The problem with it is that going from a revolt that is successful in terms of overthrowing a leader to structural change is a very difficult process that would be difficult even if you did not have external intervention in an attempt to roll things back. So, I would argue that the last decade has been a decade of defiance and dissent, and there’s no reason to believe that we won’t see more of that, at least in significant parts of the Middle East. I think in the Gulf, we probably for a variety of reasons, even though in the Gulf, if you go back to 2011, it took a military crackdown backed by the UAE, by Saudi Arabia, to squash the revolt. In Bahrain, you had protests in Kuwait, you had protests in Jeddah, and you had protests in Oman. Now with the exception of Bahrain, none of those evolved into a popular uprising and it’s going to take quite a bit. You would have to have total economic mismanagement and failure in a country like Saudi Arabia or the UAE to do that. And add to that, a majority of the Gulf countries are a minority indigenous population, the citizenry is a minority and that’s a risky situation.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (01:26:04):

I think we are done with the questions or do you Just one. Okay, one last question.

Question 3 from the online audience (01:26:10):

Abul Hamid Mayer asks: Had the ijtihad (legal reasoning) as advocated by some thinkers like Iqbal been accepted by most of the Islamic clergy, one would have been optimistic about changes in Islam. Since that is not happening, does it not show that the Islamic clergy is still resisting change in Muslim societies?

James M. Dorsey (01:26:49):

Well, I think this goes back to an earlier remark where I was quoting Ahmet Kuru. A lot of the clergy, certainly in Muslim autocracies, essentially are aligned with the state. That’s where their bread and butter comes from. So they’re not going to be the people who are pushing for reform. It’s going to be independents. Now in a country like Saudi Arabia, those that are independent of the state are in prison, and if they’re not in prison, they wisely prefer to remain silent, which means, again, that if you have an independent civil society movement that can speak out, that adds importance to what it’s saying and what it’s doing because you either have a clergy that is totally aligned with an autocratic state or a clergy that is being prevented from speaking out.

Pervez Hoodbhoy (01:27:59):

There’s a simple phrase in Pakistan, military-mullah alliance, and that has survived the last 40 years. It’s been a symbiotic relationship between the military and the mullah, and they’ve been joined together because of jihad, because of wanting to conquer Kashmir and make it Pakistan. And they have, so far, been good to each other. But now I think there are serious problems arising over there because the state has come under attack earlier and now it is coming under attack again with the rise of the TTP (the Pakistani Taliban). So with that, I think we should end. Thank you very much, James. It’s been a great session with you. You took out the time and everyone here much enjoyed it and learned from you. Thank you.

James M. Dorsey (01:28:55):

Well, I learned from you and I enjoyed the questions. It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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