Monthly Archives: January 2016

Non-violence and education: the legacy of Badshah Khan

Published in Open Democracy e-zine

Susan de Muth 29 January 2016

The legacy of this hero of non-violent resistance to British colonialism is especially relevant today in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond.

Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Last Wednesday’s massacre at the Badshah Khan University in Charsadda, near Peshawar in Pakistan, is the latest in a long list of attacks on the country’s educational institutions and poignantly underscores the ideological polarisation that lies at the heart of the Taliban’s ‘war on education’ and their threats this week of more attacks to come.

Like many westerners, I had never heard of the university’s namesake, Abdel Gaffar Badshah Khan (1890 – 1988), until last July when I published an ‘investigative poem’ about him by Heathcote Williams.

I was to discover that, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Khan is a legendary figure – a Muslim hero of non-violent resistance to British colonialism and, with his friend and comrade Mahatma Gandhi, a vigorous opponent of the sectarian hatred and violence which continues to this day. Khan was to establish a 100,000-strong “unarmed army” of male and female “peace warriors” – a unique event in human history.

Khan was also a great believer in the power of education and, in an improbably progressive gesture, founded a girls’ school in Utmanzai in 1910 when he was only 20 years old. “If you wish to know how civilized a culture is,” Williams reports him as saying, “look at how they treat their women”. Williams relates how Khan urged women to come out from behind the veil:

My sisters, you are today oppressed because men/ Have ignored the commands of God and the Prophet./ In the Holy Qur’an you have an equal share with men./ If you study history you will see that there are/ Many scholars and poets among women./ Today we are the followers of custom/ And we oppress you./ It is a grave mistake we have made in degrading women…

How different this message is to that of the Pakistani Taliban who ordered every girls’ school in the Swat valley to close when they seized control of the area in 2009. Declaring education to be the “nursery of the evil, democratic system”, the group attacked 838 schools between 2009-2012, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. Violence against scholars has continued with the December 2014 massacre of 132 school children at their desks at the Army School in Peshawar, and last week’s rampage at the university which cost at least 50 students and teachers their lives.

He was repeatedly jailed and tortured but never wavered from his path of peace and tolerance.

Badshah Khan’s legacy as a champion of education – as well as non-violence – continues to inspire new generations of the region’s Muslims and informed the foundation of the Badshah Khan Educational Trust in Peshawar in 2007 and the university in 2012.

Addressing the UN in 2013, Malala Yousefzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban, cited Badshah Khan, along with Gandhi and Mother Theresa, as the source of her beliefs and sense of mission. “The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens,” Malala said. “The power of education frightens them.”

Last summer, I spoke to the Badshah Khan Educational Trust’s director, Khadim Hussein, to discuss the possibility of a translation of Williams’s poem. He was full of joy and enthusiasm as he described the trust’s rapid expansion from just two schools to twelve. With the media full of the ultra-violent Islamic State’s declaration of a ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, and sectarian warfare tearing the region apart, he expressed his delight that Williams’s poem would remind readers that Islam is not synonymous with extremism and barbarity. The vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are appalled by the extremists’ savagery.

This week, Hussein was in deep shock after the “horrible wickedness” that stole so many young lives and sought to destroy the hope and ambition of Pakistan’s 27 million school age children. He commented on the dreadful paradox that “this violence that has been perpetrated on the land of the icon of non-violence, Badshah Khan” but remained quietly defiant: “Nobody can move us one inch by any kind of violent act from the ideals and practice of non-violence,” he said.

First the British colonialists and, after partition, the Pakistani government realised the power of Badshah Khan’s belief, shared by Gandhi, that “anger controlled/ Can be transmuted into a power/Which can move the world.” On one occasion, Khan’s unarmed ‘peace army’ was attacked by British soldiers during a demonstration, resulting in 400 deaths but they did not disband. Khan himself was repeatedly jailed and tortured – the last time at the age of 95 – but never wavered from his path of peace and tolerance. “The finest weapons of the Prophet,” Williams reports Khan as saying, “are patience and righteousness”.

It is this kind of courage in the face of persecution, this simple belief in a just cause, that, one hopes, will ultimately prevail as the brave educators and students of Peshawar resume ‘business as usual’.

As Badshah Khan always used to say at the end of his speeches to the hundreds of thousands who flocked to hear him: “Stre mashe – may you never grow tired.”

Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior by Heathcote Williams is published by Thin Man Press and is available from all good bookshops and online ISBN 978-0-9930141-2-3

KSA-Iran Stand-Off: Economic Implications

[For Turkish magazine Derinekonomi]

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are ringing alarm bells, not only because of the increased risk of sectarian war in the Middle East but because of the wider political and financial ramifications.

The Saudi economy is already struggling under the unprecedented drop in the price of oil, the proxy war it is waging in Syria, and the actual military intervention it launched in Yemen ten months ago under the moniker ‘Operation Decisive Storm’.

All of the above have their roots in the Sunni kingdom’s rivalry with Shiite Iran which is essentially sectarian and has its roots (in modern times at least) in the 1979 Islamic revolution which deposed the Shah and struck dread into the hearts of the Saudi royal family, which feared it may suffer a similar fate.

The drop in oil prices to a record $30 per barrel (it peaked at $145 in 2008) is largely due to Saudi pressure on Opec members not to apply the agreed ceiling on oil production. Riyadh’s intentions were, apparently, political and designed to damage the Iranian and Russian economies; both are oil-rich enemies (Russia backs Iran and Syrian President Assad, also Shiite, from the Alawite branch) and both under sanctions. Many Opec members (including KSA) are suffering as a result – 2016 budgets were conceived with a projected oil price in mind: for Libya this was a wildly off the mark $208 per barrel, KSA $96, Ian $70.

Saudi planners clearly did not expect its ‘oil war’ to last as long as it has. Nor did it factor in the rapprochement between the US and Iran which saw the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed in July 2015. To date, Tehran has been complying with the nuclear limitation terms and all UN, US and EU sanctions are due to be lifted in early 2016 at which point, Tehran has signalled, it will immediately boost oil production which has been running at half its capacity for nine years.

Behind the West’s new deal with Iran is the search for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Russian President Putin has taken the diplomatic lead here and convinced the major powers that without Iran (which supports the Assad regime, whereas the Saudis insist he is removed) negotiations will have no chance of success.

Diminished oil revenues are by no means the only drain on the Saudi economy. The kingdom has been leading the coalition bombarding southern neighbour, Yemen, for the past ten months at a cost of at least $60 billion. The ongoing offensive is the initiative of the recently appointed Defence Minister, Prince Mohammad bin Sultan, 30, the son of King Salman whom many believe to be the power behind the throne. Prince Mohammad believed the war – designed to destroy the Iran-backed Houthi rebel brigades who have unseated the legitimate (Sunni/Riyadh friendly) President Hadi – would last no more than ten days and does not appear to have a Plan B or an exit strategy. Meanwhile, an estimated 3000 Yemeni non-combatants have been killed, half of them children.

The oil-dependent kingdom is running out of funds and has started dipping into its savings to meet ongoing costs – it has already sold most of its European currency reserves.

At the end of 2015, the IMF warned that Saudi Arabia would go bankrupt within five years if it does not change its economic policy.

Meanwhile, Iran can see the light at the end of the austerity tunnel and its economy is growing again after a 6.6% contraction in 2012. Post-sanctions it will expand existing oil contracts and has been courting new business, worth $30 billion, from global players such as BP, Shell, Total, Statoil and Sinopec.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Iranian economy is relatively diversified, and with 80 million people it is the 17th largest market in the world. Tehran is currently awash with high profile Western business people seeking new opportunities in a variety of fields from technology to education; former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder led a German delegation at the beginning of January.

Tehran’s five year plan projects 8% growth and, so long as Tehran does not renege on its nuclear commitments, the World Bank agrees, forecasting 5.8% growth in 2016 and 6.75% in 2017. Several commentators compare Iran’s potential to Turkey’s economic miracle at the last part of 1990s.

The region’s main financial worry remains Saudi intransigence with the financial press suggesting that prices could tumble to just $10 per barrel.

The Kingdom appears to be standing firm despite its alarming 15% deficit in 2015. The budget for 2016 includes cuts in public subsidies for fuel, electricity and water. Prince Salman outlined drastic ideas for a short-term solution to his country’s fiscal woes in an interview with The Economist in early January. These include floating the state-owned Saudi Aramco, the world’s most expensive company valued between $1-$3 trillion.

The Western corporate press has embraced this Thatcherite project with Forbes magazine calling it a ‘mini revolution’ which will see Saudi Arabia ‘emerge as the leader of the Middle East’. Others foresee civil unrest: the region’s autocratic regimes are largely tolerated because of an unspoken contract between government and people that the nation’s resources belong to everyone and are shared (however unequally).

There are ramifications abroad too. Saudi Arabia’s influence regionally, as well as internationally, has largely depended on its oil wealth. Egypt, in particular, will be hard hit by any Saudi belt-tightening – the military regime has benefitted from $ billions to keep it afloat after years of war and instability.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia ramped up the stakes in early January when it decided to behead controversial Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The riots in Tehran that followed saw the Saudi Embassy set ablaze and Riyadh severing all diplomatic ties. The headstrong Prince Mohammad is now adopting George W. Bush’s stance that ‘who is not with us is against us’, apparently challenging the West to choose between KSA and Iran.

The West would do well to avoid siding with either rival, seeking, instead, to broker peace… preferably via the mediation of a regional, neutral player, such as Oman.

Anything else risks a region-wide meltdown in the flames of sectarian hatred.


New article on Open Democracy about Saudi Prince ‘Reckless’

The reckless power behind the throne

King Salman’s son Mohammad seems to be piloting Saudi Arabia into a series of ever more risky adventures.

                                                        Wikimedia/July 07, 2015. Public Domain.

In the past year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has abandoned the cautious fence-sitting that long characterised its diplomatic style in favour of an unprecedented, hawkish antagonism. That this transformation coincides with the meteoric rise of a previously little known prince – 30 year-old Mohammad bin Salman – is no accident; it seems that the prince is now the power behind the throne.

Since the death of the first king of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz, in 1953, the kingdom has been ruled by an increasingly elderly succession of six of his 45 sons; the last incumbent, Abdullah, died last January aged 90 and was replaced by the present king, Salman, who is 81 and rumoured to be suffering from dementia. The youthful, sabre-rattling Prince Mohammad, insiders say, is Salman’s favourite son by his third and favourite wife, Fahda.

Salman has one remaining brother – 75 year-old Muqrin – who would normally have been next in line for the throne. Whether alone, or at the instigation of others, Salman removed Muqrin from the succession three months after he became king. Prince Mohammad now moved up the line of succession to become ‘deputy Crown Prince’, with only his 56 year-old cousin, Mohammad bin Nayef between him and the throne.

King Salman then bestowed an astonishing array of portfolios and titles on his inexperienced son, making him Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister – the very same posts Salman himself occupied prior to inheriting the throne – as well as head of the Economic Guidance Council and Chief of the Royal Court. Within weeks, bin Nayef’s court was merged with the Royal Court, now supervised by Prince Mohammad, and one of his closest advisers was removed from the ruling cabinet.

No wonder Prince Mohammad feels mandated to pilot the kingdom into a series of ever more risky adventures, earning himself the unofficial nickname ‘Reckless’ and unfavourable comparisons with his highly intelligent half-brother, 56 year-old Prince Sultan bin Salman, who became the first Arab astronaut in 1986 and is currently languishing in obscurity as head of the Saudi Tourist Board.

At the heart of all Sunni Saudi Arabia’s current woes is its longstanding sectarian and political rivalry with the Shi’a republic of Iran. The toppling of the Shah by the 1979 Islamic revolution struck fear into the Saudi royals’ hearts and consolidated Riyadh’s political and military dependence on the west.

Just as King Salman got comfortable on the throne, everything started to go wrong.

Until very recently, Iran was isolated and under heavy sanctions, the bête noire of the west, harbouring nuclear ambitions and an aggressive attitude towards ‘the great Satan’, America, and its client state, Israel. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia could do no wrong – despite its appalling human rights record, oppression of women and rampant corruption. Pliable and passive in its regional politics, Washington’s willing ally eagerly swapped billions of petro-dollars for sophisticated military hardware, aircraft and weapons. Margaret Thatcher had a special department for pushing through the al-Yamamah arms deal which involved record amounts of dollars and corruption. This ‘special relationship’ endured: the flag over Buckingham Palace flew at half-mast when King Abdullah passed on in January last year and David Cameron, Barack Obama and François Hollande were among many world leaders who travelled to Riyadh for the late monarch’s memorial.

But just as King Salman got comfortable on the throne, everything started to go wrong for the desert kingdom.

First, the west suddenly woke up to how deeply entrenched the Islamic State (IS) had become on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border as it set about building its ‘Caliphate’; this problem now replaced the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as regional priority number one. Before this complication, alignment in Syria had been relatively simple and along sectarian fault lines: the Alawite (a branch of Shi’ism) Assad regime was backed by Iran, Iraq, Russia and China, while the mainly Sunni opposition was championed by Saudi Arabia, most Gulf states, Turkey, the US, UK and several European countries.

Recognising the growing predominance of Islamic extremists within the opposition (a situation actively fostered by Saudi Arabia) the west now preferred a political solution to the Syrian civil war and reluctantly conceded – largely under Russian pressure – that this could not be achieved without Iran. Furthermore, it looked increasingly likely that IS could not be defeated without the co-operation of the Syrian army, transforming Assad – temporarily at least – from the problem to part of the solution.

To the dismay of the Saudis, Washington began to court Tehran, creating a vehicle for rapprochement by bump-starting the nuclear limitation agreement which had been stalled for thirteen years but now accelerated to the finishing line in a matter of months. Concluded in July, it was finally signed by President Obama in October last year and Tehran was invited to the Vienna conference on Syria the same month. In addition, Iranian assets were unfrozen and sanctions lifted.

Not only did the Saudis feel betrayed, but they now faced another problem as a result. Since November 2014, they had been exerting their considerable influence on OPEC to keep pumping oil at levels above the agreed ceiling, despite falling prices. Ostensibly aimed at pricing the American fracking industry out of the market, it was also political, intended to harm the economies of oil-rich Iran and Russia – both under international sanctions at the time. Tehran now called Saudi Arabia’s bluff, announcing that as soon as sanctions were lifted it would pump a million extra barrels a day. Suddenly the tables were turned and it was the Saudi economy that was at risk, with the IMF warning in October 2015 that the nation would bankrupt itself within five years – despite its gargantuan sovereign funds ­– if it did not reverse its policy.

Nor is this the only drain on Saudi finances. Since March it has been bombarding the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, presumably at the instigation of Prince Mohammad (with his defence minister hat on). Saudi Arabia has no history or experience of unilateral armed intervention – it sent 3,000 soldiers to each of the major Arab-Israeli wars and a few more to the first Gulf War – yet the prince believed that the Houthis would be defeated in a matter of days. Ten months on, with no plan B and no exit strategy, nothing has been achieved but the devastation of the poorest country in the Middle East and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Analysts estimate that the financial cost of this adventure has already topped $60 billion. With oil revenues at rock bottom, the Saudi treasury has sold billions of dollars’ worth of European stocks to meet the ongoing costs of this unwinnable war.

The question is why, when the world stands at the brink of a catastrophic conflict, take any side at all?

Things took an even more hawkish turn last week when the Saudi regime took the decision to behead a well-known dissident Shi’a cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. There were riots in Tehran where the Saudi Embassy was set on fire; Riyadh immediately cut all diplomatic ties with Iran and shortly afterwards a Saudi airstrike damaged the Iranian embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. The resulting tension has sent shock-waves through the region, with many fearing a war between the two powers as the Saudis seek to enlist the support of fellow Sunni nations.

With the headstrong Prince Mohammad at the helm, backing down does not appear to be an option… and if the war-chest runs out, contingencies are in place. In an interview last week with The Economist, Prince Mohammad revealed a plan to float Aramco – the trillion dollar nationalised oil company and the country’s most valuable asset – on the international markets and sell billions worth of nationally-owned prime land for private development. In addition, subsidies for the needy will be slashed and the education and healthcare systems privatised, putting them out of reach for the poorest members of society.

In Gulf countries, autocratic systems are generally tolerated due to an unspoken contract between government and the people that everyone benefits from the nation’s wealth (albeit extremely unequally); Prince Mohammad’s Thatcherite vision, if implemented, risks widespread civil unrest. In addition, the restive Shi’a population in the east is sitting on top of the country’s largest oil fields and distribution centres.

Saudi influence abroad has always been predicated on its wealth and can be expected to diminish along with its coffers. Nevertheless, Prince Mohammad adopted the diplomatic style of George W. Bush in his search for allies: ‘Who’s not with us is against us’. The right wing press has apparently already made its decision: the Daily Telegraph declared that “Britain Must Side With Saudi Arabia”, while Roger Boyes in The Times opined “execution by sword is brutal but Riyadh remains our best hope for peace in the Middle East”… well that’s not what they say about the Islamic State. In fact, the past year saw a record number of beheadings in Saudi Arabia and 157 executions in all.

None of this is to say that Iran is any better – both theocracies are intolerant, oppressive and cruel. The question is why, when the world stands at the brink of a catastrophic conflict, take any side at all? Shouldn’t Britain and America, supposedly ‘developed’ countries claiming to be beacons of progress and democracy, be brokering the rapprochement between these two extremist regimes that is key to regional peace, and a political solution to the Syrian crisis? Shouldn’t the west be exercising the undoubted influence it still possesses in the Royal Palace to urge more caution, more debate?

If the west persists, instead, in following a deluded prince into an unwinnable battle against a fabricated monster, it might as well champion Don Quixote tilting at windmills and declaring “a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless”.