Archive for ‘Azerbaijan’

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 30, 2012

Considering the Holocaust, Will Israel Have the Balls to Recognize the Armenian Genocide?

by Gedalyah Reback

Originally posted in The Beacon Mag

Last May, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin pledged he’d recognize the Armenian Genocide in the Knesset. Rivlin’s a moderate in the Likud Party, but he’s been a hawk on the issue. For five years, the Knesset has been debating commemorating the Ottoman Empire’s crimes. In 2011, they finally made the discussions public. So why is it so hard to acknowledge something that even Hitler supposedly did as early as 1939? According to one translation, the scumbag put it this way:

“Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

So until now what’s kept Israel from acknowledging the disaster? Quite simply, it would piss off Turkey.

Jews in other places around the world recognize the crime, and the Turks aren’t around to bully them into not. The USC Shoah Foundation, which sports many high-value Jewish donors, is adding 400 recorded testimonies from survivors of the Armenian Genocide to its archives. This is a major change for the foundation’s Institute, which has only focused on the Holocaust till now. In 2007, the Anti-Defamation League recognized the WWI massacres. The Zionist Organization of America also recognizes it. But the ADL’s head Abraham Foxman did so only after pressure from inside his organization. While Foxman wanted to protect Israel’s diplomatic position, his own organization pressured him to face the facts. Inside Israel, now that Turkey’s on the outs with Jerusalem, what could possibly justify continuing this ridiculous policy?

Azerbaijan. Despite whatever denials the government here in Israel cooks up, the security asset the Azeris are in the fight against Iran is tremendous. Israel might use Azerbaijan as a staging ground to attack nuclear sites, so reports say, so now denying the Armenian Genocide seems as important as ever. On April 6th, an Azerbaijani news outlet got to interview the country’s ambassador from Israel. What he said was revealing:

Question: Recently, the committee of the Knesset has discussed so called “Armenian genocide”. Will this issue come to the agenda of the Israeli parliament?
Ambassador Michael Lotem: The committee will discuss, but I think it will not go beyond. This issue should be kept to historians, not dealt by the politicians.

No matter how many meetings there are in the Knesset, Israel’s Foreign Ministry still seems to be revealing the country’s intent. Any Knesset meeting on the subject is a publicity stunt aimed at scaring the Turks. It’s not serious. It’s embarrassing as a country so intent on highlighting the devastation of the Holocaust that its leaders are apathetic to the idea of recognizing other crimes. Benjamin Netanyahu has used the Holocaust as a point of comparison to Iran’s intent regarding Israel’s Jews, so what good could it possibly do to diminish another genocide and risk diluting the significance of the Holocaust in the eyes of the world?

Turkey still refuses to recognize the magnitude or viciousness of the slaughter, arguing the numbers of those killed and the circumstances – battle as opposed to systematic murder. But a wave of European countries do not just recognize the event but criminalize denying it. On April 9th, it was reported the head of the Slovakian Supreme Court would have any Turkish official prosecuted if he dared deny the genocide on Slovakian soil. France pissed off Turkey several year ago when it passed its own version of the law. France’s statute was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court there, but the attitude toward the event is clearly on equal terms to how countries treat denial of the Holocaust. Europe is awash with these laws. Germany is the most famous for it, but in other countries the statutes exist: Austria, France, Poland and Portugal. Spain is more lenient about denial per se, but specifically prosecutes justifying the Holocaust. Israel has its laws outlawing Holocaust denial, but hasn’t even brought itself to acknowledge the mere happening of the Armenian tragedy.

Recognizing it will deepen Israel’s relationship with Turkey’s rivals: Greece and Cyprus. Turkey usually threatens consequences for diplomatic ties if another country recognizes the genocide. That threat means little these days in Jerusalem. Without leverage on Israel, the Jewish voice on the matter will weigh heavy against Turkey in the court of international opinion. Whatever problems Israel has diplomatically, its authority on genocide issues and its intimate connection to the Holocaust make the Jewish point of view extremely important to advocates of genocide prevention and recognition (see Armenia, Rwanda, Darfur).

Otniel Schneller, a member of the parliament, rolled out the identical argument for avoiding the issue as others had in the past, saying “Sometimes our desire to be right and moral overcomes our desire to exist, which is in the interest of the entire country.” But it’s more paranoid than proven that Turkey or Azerbaijan could have such a devastating effect on Israeli security. Turkey’s relationship has gone to crap with Israel, Syria and Iraq over the last several years, leaving it with little leeway for its own foreign policy in the region and thus little to threaten Israel with. Regarding Israel, the Jewish state lets other countries dictate its talk in the strangest ways, and the state is only undermining its assertiveness letting pressure from a non-ally, Turkey, bully the Jewish state into avoiding a simple moral statement. Turkey and Azerbaijan still need Israel as an ally against Iran; not just the other way around. Not acknowledging Jewish sovereignty on the issue is not merely impotent, but hits at the ‘galus’ mentality.

Recognizing the “Forgotten Holocaust” this year is a promise of Rivlin’s, but he’ll have to put his money where his mouth is to end this embarrassing situation. Rivlin and the entire Knesset will soon get their shot. It’s disgraceful it’s taken so long, but perhaps this year the ball will drop.

April 10, 2012

Israel, Azerbaijan & New Problems Recognizing the Armenian Genocide

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel will be testing its relationship with Azerbaijan much sooner than people would have thought. FP’s enlightening article on an Israeli-Azeri alliance surprised countless journalists, politicos and Israel enthusiasts, so hearing Israel might risk jeopardizing would seem downright stupid. But that assumes that everything you need to know about Azerbaijan was in that article. Like my previous post on Armenia, most of the focus has been on Turkey. Israel can’t commemorate the Armenian Genocide without drawing Turkish ire. That’s far less of an issue with Turkish-Israeli ties already so cold they couldn’t get more frigid. But with Azerbaijan, suddenly Israel might have the same problem as it did with Ankara and the Turks.

Azerbaijan is itself a Turkic country (as opposed to “Turkish,” “TURKIC” is a much broader category that includes a bunch of ethnic groups, countries and languages spread across Asia). It has a strong historical relationship with the Ottoman Empire and the Turkic tribes that eventually made their way to Anatolia and founded that empire. What separates Azerbaijan from Turkey and other Turkic countries is that it is Shi’ite Muslim, like Iran. Unlike Iran, Azeris are secular, mostly thanks to being a part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s. The break-up though led to a reigniting of Azerbaijan’s historical rivalry with the nearby Armenians. With both groups having their own countries, the two have been at war since the end of the Soviets, with heavy historical baggage being carried by both sides of the conflict.

The war with Armenia makes recognizing the Armenian Genocide in some ways even touchier an issue than it would be for Turkey. The Armenians, for their part, also see Azeris as having been complicit in the entire episode. That being said, Azerbaijan also doesn’t recognize the massacres as having been anything other than the collateral damage of war and nowhere near anything as systematic as the Holocaust.

But the world disagrees, like has been said millions of times. So now Israel faces the Azeris and not just the Turks when it comes to putting this issue to rest. A diplomatic crisis might be in the offing. On April 6th, an Azerbaijani news outlet got to interview the country’s ambassador from Israel. What he said was disturbing:

Question: Recently, the committee of the Knesset has discussed so called “Armenian genocide”. Will this issue come to the agenda of the Israeli parliament?
Ambassador Michael Lotem: The committee will discuss, but I think it will not go beyond. This issue should be kept to historians, not dealt by the politicians.

Azeris are disturbed by the idea that more countries could recognize the event as a genocide, something publicly humiliating for Azerbaijan as much as it has been for Turkey. But why is Israel nervous about the entire thing? The questioner’s perspective seems to be one of anxiety, not anger. Despite the grandstanding and outrage from Turkey whenever a country brings up the historical calamity, it’s not power the Turks project but nervousness. Turkey and Azerbaijan need Israel as much as Israel needs them, and not just on this issue. More practical issues, like defense and the economy, have made the two countries’ relationship with Israel important. Azerbaijan might be an asset against Iran – a possible base for Israeli jets, rescue crews and monitoring technology – but Israel also has been big for the Azeri economy and giving Baku’s leaders more of an outlet to the outside world. The government there has a sullied rep, so good press fighting the dark side in Iran is welcomed press.

Members of the Knesset have always been split on the issue of disrupting ties with Turkey over this, but it’s an untested theory that Turkey would disrupt ties with Israel. It’s even further unknown, probably more improbably Azerbaijan would do such a thing. Armenia also has a border with Iran, and Azerbaijan would be in dire straits if it sacrificed all its connections with Israel in retaliation for the way Israel looked at history. It would be more ironic and humiliating if that resulted in Israel building up its ties with Armenia, creating a major problem for Azerbaijan’s security that wouldn’t have existed if not for a stubborn, emotional reaction to a token acknowledgement of an event 100 years in the past.

Israel lets other countries dictate its talk in the strangest ways, and the state is only undermining its assertiveness letting pressure from a non-ally, Turkey, bully the Jewish state into avoiding a simple moral statement. Turkey and Azerbaijan still need Israel as an ally against Iran; not just the other way around.

April 1, 2012

Outside Arabia: Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel’s Strategy

by Gedalyah Reback

Month to month, there is some report about Turkey’s distaste for Israeli policy or the Jewish state getting cozy with one of Turkey’s immediate neighbors. Today was Israel’s latest military exercise with Greece. The exercise involves the United States Navy and is actually the replacement for the NATO-affiliated exercises Israel once joined that had a central presence by Turkey. Israel doesn’t have to go far to find some way to exploit the divide between Greece and Turkey.

There isn’t the sort of tension that led to Greek revolutions against the Ottoman Empire of the past, but the diplomatic differences are still there. Issues revolve around Turkey’s ally Northern Cyprus, and Greece’s ally (the southern) Republic of Cyprus.

But the more important story this week was about Azerbaijan. Israel’s government has gone out of its way the last 15 years to create a strong relationship with Iran’s secular neighbor. The article speculated Israel could use Azerbaijan either to stage rescue missions and “clean-up” crews for the aftermath of a strike on Iran, or even use it to launch the operation itself. Despite the heavy political implications and exposure to Azerbaijan’s security, the story’s reporting does broaden our general perspective of how versatile Israel’s strategy is.

There are a bunch of other countries that Israel has interest in. It doesn’t have to involve Iran. But these stories and more in the pipeline should wake up anyone studying the country. There’s slightly more to Israel’s military and foreign interests than just the United States, Iran and the Palestinians.

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