Archive for ‘Asia’

May 16, 2012

Modern Shi’ite Islam: 201 – the Power of the Scholars

by Gedalyah Reback

But what is it that gives Shi’ite leaders their power? It’s not the guns on the street that fuel Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq or Nasrallah in Lebanon. The influence is a mix of religious prestige and control of resources. Both men govern strong militias, but they owe their power to different influences. Amazingly, neither of them is considered authoritative scholars in Shi’ite Islam. They are militiamen or carry the name recognition of their relatives.

Those scholars are called “mujtahidun,” Arabic for “adjudicators.” They are the elite of the scholars in the Shi’ite world, the most capable and intelligent in being able to analyze centuries of scholarship and jurisprudence. Over the last 200 years, their political power has grown to the point they’re resented.

In the 19th century, Shi’ite Islam was split between two movements: the Akhbaris & the Usulis. The first considered Islamic law as fully laid out, outlined and organized. There was nothing new to contribute to analyzing the original sources of Islamic law – the Quran and the Hadith. Trying to draw new conclusions would be violating the legal precedents previous scholars had set in place. Akhbaris looked at complex legal analysis – “ijtihad” – as categorically forbidden.

The Usulis are the intellectual antithesis. Their belief that the world is constantly changing or new legal scenarios present themselves made their idea that ijtihad was not only permissible but necessary much more practical. That practicality crushed the Akhbari movement, which was too rigid to respond the changing social and economic climate for Shi’ites in Iraq & Iran living under European influence and Ottoman modernization.

The Mujtahid practices Ijtihad. Achieving such an influential title is not necessarily a formal process, but a mujtahid is expected to have studied for years, probably decades, in order to earn it.

The Usuli emphasis on a mujtahid’s ability also translated into giving a mujtahid more communal authority. Suddenly, a mujtahid is considered a strongly qualified person to decide major economic and social issues in the Shi’ite community. Combine this new emphasis to that authority with the access to charitable donations and managing locally owned religious property, and the power of a mujtahid became much stronger.

Colonial influence by the British and resentment of the Ottoman Empire helped create political issues that made these legal scholars politically popular. When the British forced the Iranian Shah to outsource ownership of local tobacco crops to European monopolies in 1891, a renowned Iraqi scholar publicly banned smoking, destroying the tobacco industry. The ban was lifted only when the Shah cancelled the international contract. It strengthened the position of not just Iraqi scholars but also the power of Shi’ite scholars to extend their influence beyond their own borders.

In 1935, after years of Shi’ite scholars protesting the Sunni-heavy national curriculum of schools and Shi’ite marginalization from the government, they were instrumental in organizing an armed revolt against the Sunni-dominated government. It was the effort to force Shi’ites into a national draft that sparked the rebellion, and showed the political and even military power scholars were gaining as the main legal authorities in their religious communities.
Even though Iraq came down hard on these scholars in the years afterward, the idea they were the most qualified to lead the community fed the creation of religious political parties in the 1950s & 1960s in Iraq.

Big-name scholars Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim and the prodigy Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr lent their support to these political movements in the 1950s. Both were members of religious dynasties, much like there are Jewish leaders today who might hail from the Feinstein or Soloveitchik Rabbinical dynasties.

Ayatollah Khomeini also had a tall soapbox in Iraq while exiled from Iran, bringing that idea of political authority full circle into a highly developed constitutional system led by a “Supreme Leader,” officially a steward for the 12th Imam, running the Iranian government. His idea has been enshrined as law; only the most learned scholar can be appointed as the head of the Shi’ite world, whose de facto capital has become the capital of revolutionary Shi’ite Iran, for now.

May 15, 2012

Modern Shi’ite Islam: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

The Shiite world has often been ignored in historical research and political value. We seemed to have only started caring again when the United States and United Kingdom invaded Iraq. Suddenly, a secular Sunni elite was toppled, giving rise to a majoritarian state ruled by a conglomerate of Shiite political parties closely connected to Iran. But the flood of new books on the community is limited to topics of international security, terrorism and war. The modern sense of Shi’ism has been defined more by the experiences with the Ottoman Empire and internal tension over the dogma of the religion.

Traditionally in Shiite Islam, the idea that any one figure could rule it was actually borderline heretical. Twelver Jafari Shiite Islam is named “12-er” because it reveres 12 successors – “Imams” – to the Prophet Muhammad and his nephew Ali. For the first 300 years of Islamic history, Shiite leaders were constantly on the run or in hiding. Sunni rulers or religious rivals (often the same enemy) pursued their Shiite rivals, causing a number of sub-splits in the Shiite community that created communities that revered each Imam individually. As one religious leader would die, competition would envelope Shiite rivals for the position. Zaidi Shiites (Fivers) and Ismaili Shiites (Seveners) each see the fifth or seventh Imams as the last legitimate princes of the Shiite dynasty, while Twelvers don’t believe the dynasty ended until the disappearance of a 12th successor. The religion eventually coalesced, seeing this 12th Imam as an exile spiritually empowered that will miraculously reemerge to reassume control of the Islamic community in the End Times. To say anyone else is entitled or qualified at all to lead the community in a formal capacity was consequently a theological controversy.

During the 19th century, Shi’ism, more specifically Twelver Jafari Shi’ite Islam, underwent an intellectual civil war. The first side of the coin was the conservative Akhbari school of legal thought. Their approach to religious law was that it was static. Trying to elucidate new principles of law, even in relation to unprecedented questions facing the community, was considered categorically forbidden. Their philosophical opponents were called Usulis, who argued it was impractical not to open up the possibility of reinterpreting old jurisprudence to apply to the modern era. Eventually, the Usulis proved much more adaptable to the changing environment. Only in Bahrain did the Akhbari school manage to survive, but the philosophy of Bahraini Shi’ism has been heavily influenced by foreign communities over the last 150 years.

But Usuli thinkers have become more reflective of the static Akhbari approach. Because religious thinkers and legal scholars were able to make themselves more relevant as interpreters of Islamic law in relation to new problems, their own positions got to be more socially important. With that, their institutions and resources became central elements of the community and their personas representative of the community as a whole. With this, extremely loyal followings coalesced around them. Even beyond that, the suddenly important position of the most exceptional scholars took on more religious meaning. Thinkers began arguing they were the only ones qualified to lead Islamic communities, even beyond Shiite centers.

That opened up the door for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Developments in Usuli philosophy challenged the traditional attitude to leadership in the community. He developed a concept called “Rule of the Jurist,” theorizing that the most learned scholar was the only legitimate leader of Shi’ite Islam in absence of the 12th Imam. His ideas, published in the 1960s while in exile in Iraq, built on ideas from other leading Shi’ite thinkers throughout the 1900s. By the time he led the Islamic Revolution in 1979, no other authoritative scholar in Twelver Shi’ite Islam had the recognition Khomeini did. That also was true regarding wealth and resources. That same year, Saddam Hussein took the helm as Iraq’s president, and within a year he destroyed any armed or political opposition among Iraqi Shi’ites. In 1980, ordering the murder of the revered Iraqi scholar Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, he pushed other religious leaders either into submission or into seclusion. Only Khomeini’s Iran had the ability to lead the Shi’ite world, sponsoring the community of Lebanon and pushing for more influence in Persian Gulf countries – even among the traditionally Akhbari community of Bahrain.

Only with the rise of democratic Iraq has Shi’ism begun to see a rapid shift away from the philosophy one man could be an infallible leader to the Shi’ite world. On the one hand, Iraqis are aware of the oppressive policies of the Iranian government toward its citizens, including rival Shi’ite scholars. On the other hand, Iraq’s most renowned cleric – Ayatollah Ali Sistani – is a student of Ayatollah Khomeini’s main rival Ayatollah Abu al-Qasem al-Khoi. They personify the idea that no one scholar can be considered more authoritative than another recognized as his intellectual equal. With Iraq’s sudden Shi’ite awakening, there is a rival center of Shi’ite culture.

Modern Shi’ite Islam is a rich and changing world. This can only serve as a broad introduction as to the nature of power in the Shi’ite world, but it is an important gateway to understanding why one man might claim himself a legitimate pretender to a religion’s throne.

April 25, 2012

Israeli Companies are Building India’s Robotic Weapons

by Gedalyah Reback

India has been beefing up its naval abilities ever since Pakistani terrorists landed in Mumbai in 2008 and killed nearly 200 people. It’s the latest in a mostly positive stringof encounters with Israeli military companies, especially welcome after what happened to IMI.

The latest Indian project involves unmanned drones, but this time in the water. Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. (MM), an Indian sporting company, is teaming with Rafael to make the machine happen. India has been augmenting its navy since the 2008 attacks anticipating more break-in attempts, especially from Pakistan. Much of the development is focusing on defending the coastline of Gujarat, the largest state in India. The latest project adds to the efforts, announced in January, of adding a second aerial unmanned squadron to the Indian arsenal. That project involves Israel Aerospace Industries.

Robotics as a non-military venture is also gaining traction. Recently, the National Committee on Robotics and Automation and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) sent reps to Israel for further research and venture development with Israeli companies. They met with the head of the Israeli Robotics Association, Professor Zvi Shiller. According to his bio, he has been involved in projects with the Israeli Defense Ministry, Science Ministry and even its Space Agency. Meeting Shiller might not have any other political implications, but the fact he is on staff at Ariel University (in the West Bank) was not at all on the list of concerns, let alone the radar whatsoever, of the Indian delegation.

This is all happening despite obstacles in the Israeli-Indian relationship, including accusations Israel Military Industries, owned by the Israeli government, has been bribing its way to Indian contracts. Various reports range from $44 to $70 million in seized assets to serve as a fine for the breach in trust, which is actually included in the contracts India’s Defense Ministry signs. That action brought up issues inside Israel regarding the ethical conduct of its major companies in general. Now with another country taking notice of such business practices in a public way, it’s an especially humiliating prospect. In the meantime, IMI is appealing the Indian decision. It is unlikely they’ll make headway, since they are only one of seven companies India has blacklisted (India won’t make defense deals with these companies for at least 10 years).

April 15, 2012

Israel’s Submarines Might Pack a Surprise for Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has been buying Dolphin class submarines from Germany the last couple of years. Last year, Germany might have even been delaying deals in order to push Israel on the peace process, but as it turns out Israel has gotten more armor from the European giant. In February, it leaked Israel might be buying three more.  That barely amounts to a handful, but the costs make the deal for Israel’s F-35 stealth planes look like a bargain.  Apparently, they cost about $659 million apiece.  But all in all, what could Israel do with merely six submarines?  No other country in the Middle East has that many, but what good does it do compared to the punch planes will have against foes in the field?

What should be appreciated is that Middle Eastern countries have a horrible history keeping navies.  It has been an Achilles’ heel for the past empires of Egypt and the Ottomans in the face of European technology and firepower, going back a millennium.  Facing Crusader threats in the late 1200s (opens PDF), the Egyptian rulers of medieval Palestine decided to literally destroy their own coastline because, “we just can’t defend her.”  Without a navy, they expected to spend infinite sums on maintaining coastal defenses, so they decided to level the fortresses and evacuate the coastal cities, forcing the major fights onto land.

The policy was extremely self-defeating, as it ruined the economic prospects of empires’ different territories and made holding them a chore.  They constantly had to keep troops in the field occupied and interested since they had made places like Ashdod, Yaffo and even southern Lebanon desolate and into a backwater.

Boats & Planes

But with the advent of the air force, is Israel really correcting a historical error by several Middle Eastern powers by investing heavily in this sort of navy?  Planes today effectively represent the navy, even in the United States.  The planes that live on aircraft carriers are actually navy planes.  Israel’s main enemies are adjacent or so close they can be reached in minutes if not seconds.  What do the submarines add?

They add the ability to quietly extend Israel’s reach in the Mediterranean and perhaps even the Persian Gulf.  These submarines can launch torpedoes, and Israel has invested the time into the tests and training on how to shoot them.  In 2000 & 2002, apparently working with India the two countries tested cruise missiles off the coast of Sri Lanka.  The range was thought to be short, but the boats Israel is buying and the ones the orders it’s already received from Germany could fire weapons with much longer ranges like the ones used by the United States.

A cruise missile is much harder to shoot down than a plane, and it takes less work to fire a missile 1,500 kilometers than launching a plane.

Positioning

Ultimately, Israel would have to get these submarines in range to fire.  If Israel had a 1,500-km capable missile, it would be able to hit anywhere in Iran from the Persian Gulf. It’s not an issue. They’ve been there before. But could Israel keep a constant presence in the Gulf at cost and be ready to enter into any battle? Israel only has 4 of its submarines right now. Two more are on the way, but won’t arrive till 2014 & 2016. If Israel goes it alone, does the punch just four offshore secret weapons weigh heavily enough to impact the fight?

February 11, 2010

On Iran, Israel has the Ability to Sanction China

by Gedalyah Reback

Recently, the Chinese government expressed interest in investing in a new Israeli consortium developing the offshore oil fields near Haifa. This would add to the growing presence of China in Israel’s economy, which included the Carmel Tunnel and the Tel Aviv Light-Rail Project. China’s Yifang recently acquired Israel’s Pegasus Technologies. China is definitely interested in increasing its economic namely energy ties with Israel.

And that is precisely why they should be withheld.

More and more, the Chinese government has publicly come out against renewed sanctions against Iran. Further, Beijing has attacked the US for publicly attacking internet censorship in Iran. Compound these facts with Chinese support for North Korea and we are presented with an intolerable link with the Syria’s destroyed nuclear installation, attacked with a swift air strike in September 2007. All of these positions run counter to Jerusalem’s interests and should be grounds for Israeli sanctions against Beijing.

The military trade has been under pressure to be cut off for years, and this would provide Israel with the optimal excuse to make that gesture. Among numerous examples, the Bush Administration pressured and torpedoed a $1 billion deal that would have seen Israel upgrade Chinese jets and radars. There was diplomatic damage done from the abrupt deal breaker, but it is a move worth emulating, even at a time where Israel’s government is resolved to challenge US pressure on Israeli policy. China has benefited from the military trade with Israel, roughly totaling $1.5 billion during the 1990s, and currently covers work on surface-to-air missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

As part of a greater effort to either persuade or pressure the Chinese into supporting a stronger sanctions regime against Tehran, Israel should show signs it will strengthen its relationship with Japan at China’s expense. It is also would not outside Israel’s periphery to cooperate with American-Taiwanese arms deals, like the clandestine Israeli transfer of American missiles to Taiwan in the 1980s.

Aside from the military imports, Chinese exports to Israel represent about $3.17 billion according to the Israeli Embassy to China. China itself recognizes the need to wean itself off oil and gas investments in places like Iran, even if only for the sake of diversifying its economy and improving its R&D sector, something it ought to be willing to make diplomatic concessions on in order to do. Even the mere threat that exports to Israel could be cut off would be a sure sign that China cannot reap benefits from both Israel and Iran simultaneously.

According to Tel Aviv University’s Aron Shai (link, p.27): ), expert on Israeli-Chinese relations, there is much that Israel still has to offer China in terms of agriculture and energy, something in which China has a commanding interest. Those facts point directly to Israel’s revolutionary desalinization technology and solar power markets. Limited access to advanced agro-techology and energy alternatives would certainly threaten China’s pace of growth.

It would certainly be preferable to open more economic missions in China, given the size of the market and tremendous demand for Israeli R&D. But given China’s obstinance on Israel’s priority security issue, such long-term investments should be off the table.

February 6, 2010

Israeli Sanctions against China and Stronger Ties with Japan

by Gedalyah Reback

Recently, the Chinese government expressed interest in investing in a new Israeli consortium developing the offshore oil fields near Haifa. With production slated to begin in 2012, it will be a new option for countries starving for energy. China is one of those countries, and clearly finds value in developing its defense and economic ties with Israel. This would add to the growing presence of China in Israel’s economy, which included the Carmel Tunnel and the Tel Aviv Light-Rail Project. China’s Yifang recently acquired Israel’s Pegasus Technologies. China is definitely interested in increasing its ties with Israel.

And that is precisely why they should be withheld.

More and more, the Chinese government has publicly come out against renewed sanctions against Iran. Further, Beijing has tried to frustrate the US by demonizing “cyber warfare” Washington is waging against Tehran. Neither of these positions serve Jerusalem’s interests. Compound these facts with Chinese support for North Korea and we are presented with an intolerable link with the Syria’s destroyed nuclear installation, attacked with a swift air strike in September 2007. All of this should be grounds for Israeli sanctions against Beijing.

Though the US has frustrated Israel itself by pressuring it to end its military trade with China, it is a move that is by far in Israel’s benefit even at a time where Israel’s government is resolved to challenge US pressure on Israeli policy. China has benefited from the military trade with Israel, roughly totaling $1.5 billion during the 1990s. Overall, Chinese exports to Israel represent about $3.5 billion, and even the mere threat that it could be cut off would be a sure sign that China cannot reap benefits from both Israel and Iran simultaneously.

China itself recognizes the need to wean itself off short-term investments in Iran, something it ought to be willing to make diplomatic concessions on in order to do so.

As part of a greater effort to either persuade or pressure the Chinese into supporting a stronger sanctions regime against Tehran, Israel should show signs it will strengthen its relationship with Japan at China’s expense. It is alsno not outside Israel’s periphery to cooperate with American-Taiwanese arms deals, like the clandestine Israeli transfer of American missiles to Taiwan in the 1980s.

According to Tel Aviv University’s Aron Shai there is much that Israel still has to offer China in terms of agriculture and energy. Those facts point directly to Israel’s leading desalinization technology and solar power markets. Limited access to oil’s alternatives would certainly limit China’s long-term development.

IT SHOULD be part of a larger strategy to increase Israel’s diplomatic presence globally. Currently, Israel’s relationship with developing powers like India, Brazil, Japan and Germany are limited to a single embassy and a handful of “honorary counsels.” If Israel is to be an eminent regional power, namely economic and technological, there should be an increased, professional consular presence in those countries’ major cities.


Former Prime Minister Olmert meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao

Besides China, the aforementioned states represent the future distributed centers of global power. Israel needs greater diplomatic leverage, especially in actually being able to sit in preeminent positions like the UN Security Council (something it has never done). An exemplar of new relationships would be to support UNSC reform to grant these countries their own vetos on the council.

Even without downgrading relations with China, there is reason to consider creating a consular presence in Japan and Taiwan. While total trade volume with China is about $4.5 billion, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs only reports a $2.11 billion relationship with Israel.

Israel and Japan have major common interests in terms of missile defense and particularly security concerns relating to North Korea. Yaacov Cohen of the Jewish Center for Public Affairs notes Japanese interest in virtually all major economic sectors active in Israel, including the same areas the Chinese would be.

Israeli security will not be served by rewarding a country that impedes it. Simultaneously, Israeli ties with Japan should be upgraded independent of whatever problems Israel and China have together.


Members of a Japanese Christian group known as Makuya wave Japanese and Israeli flags

Other sources not hyper-linked in the blog:

China and antiterrorism, Chapter: China and Israel – Strange Bedfellows 1948-2006, by Aron Shai

Strategic interests in the Middle East: opposition and support for US, Chapter 6: Japan between the United States and Middle East by George Ehrhardt

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