Ahmadinejad Under Fire – Saudi Succession Woes – Islamic Feminism ‘On the Move’

Sep 14, 2010 7:00am

AHMEDINEJAD UNDER FIRE: POLITICALLY CONFIDENT, BUT CRACKING HIS CONSERVATIVE COREBRAIN DRAIN? When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes to the UN General Assembly in New York this month, greeted by the annual protests, he’ll be taking leave from a political firestorm at home. Iran’s politics have been a web of bickering, with uncharacteristically blunt disagreements that have exposed, if not widened fissures within the conservative camp. Ironically, says analyst Rasool Nafisi, it’s Ahmadinejad’s political strength that’s bringing on the fire. Ahmadinejad has felt increasingly confident since the Supreme Leader’s extended support for his reelection and through the controversy that followed.

‘Because Khamenei went 100% behind Ahmadinejad – because of that heavy cost — he won’t go against him,’ Nafisi told ABC News.

‘That’s why Ahmadinejad is acting the way he is…He feels that nobody can really touch him, and based on that trying to expand his powers.’

This weekend, analysts say, was another study in the conservative power struggle: Ahmadinejad was pushing for US hiker Sarah Shourd’s release on Saturday, with all the fanfare and PR value of a grand humanitarian gesture. But judiciary officials, led by one of Ahmadinejad’s conservative rivals, would not let him go over their heads. ‘He wanted to make the best of this for himself, before his departure to the US…but what Ahmadinejad was doing would have been illegal,’ said Omid Memarian, a journalist and Iran expert based. Ahmadinejad’s overreaching has sparked the ire of hard-line conservatives behind Khamenei, say analysts, who see Ahmadinejad challenging the Supreme Leader on policy. The first major disagreement came in the form of Ahmadinejad’s right hand man and relative through marriage, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Khamenei called for his dismissal as Vice President last year; Ahmadinejad removed him as VP, but compensated by giving him more than a dozen positions in government. Analyst Meir Javedanfar sees Ahmadinejad grooming Mashaei as his successor, as a way to maintain influence when his term ends in 2013. Another point of contention is Ahmadinejad’s active foreign policy – encroaching on the reserved domain of the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad appointed special envoys to the Middle East and other key regions, a move considered out-of-bounds and offensive by the Khamenei camp, and the two camps have differed on the hottest issue of all: whether and how to engage America.

‘Ahmadinejad keeps saying he is willing to meet with President Obama when he goes to New York. But the Supreme Leader has come out and said, no you won’t. That is a direct slap on the face,’ said Iran expert Hooshang Amirahmadi. ‘Obviously Ahmadinejad had not cleared these statements with the Supreme Leader before he made them.’ Moderate conservatives have also been critical of Ahmadinejad’s presidency – especially accusing him of economic mismanagement. Ahmadinejad has been blamed for steep inflation and public discontent, as in this summer’s strike of the powerful bazaar merchants. That unease could spiral with Ahmadinejad’s next ambitious plan: peeling back food and fuel subsidies and saving $20 billion over the next six months, but making life in Iran much more expensive. With those changes around the corner, some see and sense a tipping point. ‘One political analyst I spoke to in Tehran said he doesn’t think Ahmadinejad will be in his position a year from now, said Kelly Niknejad, editor-in-chief of Tehran Bureau. It’s hard to tell from here, but it’s what a lot of people there believe.’ Whether Ahmadinejad is pushed from his post or not, experts see the conservative split reshaping Iran’s politics and creating new challenges for US diplomacy. Conservative Resalat newspaper cast the discord among conservatives as part of the Western ‘soft war’ on Iran. But the divisions are real and significant enough that the Supreme Leader had to call for unity, saying the disputes were ‘not advisable.’ ‘This elite behavior presents an unappealing image to the Iranian public,’ wrote Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group. ‘Over the medium term [it could] contribute to a further loss of legitimacy for the regime.’ More links:
» PBS/Tehran Bureau: Ahmadinejad-Khamenei Rift Deepens | Inside Iran: Khamenei’s Rebuke to Ahmadinejad
» The Economist on A Power Struggle in Iran: The President’s Awkward Friend
» FP: Ahmadinejad vs. Khamenei? SAUDI SUCCESSION: A KINGDOM WATCHES AND WORRIES FOR THE CHANGE AHEAD It's arguably the most important country in the Arab world, and no one knows where it goes next. You might hear that said of Egypt – another country with an unclear succession and big changes ahead. But in Saudi Arabia, a potentially bumpy ride through the next generation has wider echoes for a web of global interests. Saudi Arabia is, famously, an oil producing giant, the guardian of Islam’s holiest shrines, and a US ally that helps underpin and underwrite American policy goals in the Middle East. A brief rundown of where things stand in Saudi Arabia (for a more elaborate look see this piece from the Economist): King Abdullah, a relative reformist credited with improving the status of women and opening Saudi Arabia to the world, is well into his 80s. Crown Prince Sultan, the heir apparent, is roughly the same age and has been ill or convalescing for much of the past year. Prince Nayef, 77, is the Deputy Prime Minister and thus believed to be next in line, except that some royal brothers weren’t happy to see him promoted without going through the Allegiance Council, a set of 35 princes that’s supposed to determine who comes next. Bottom line: the crown is passed brother to brother, all of the brothers are old, and in Saudi’s consensus-driven system, getting everyone to agree is a complex challenge. In a landmark study for the Washington Institute, Simon Henderson described 5 succession scenarios for what could happen After King Abdullah. In one case, ‘Saudi political decision-making…could be paralyzed amid a succession crisis that features several short reigns of ailing elderly kings.’ That’s especially important to global efforts that rely on Saudi Arabia to maintain steady oil prices, fight Al Qaeda, balance a rising Iran, and stabilize the region. ‘Whether the [Saudi] system can tolerate the deaths of successive kings at such close intervals is questionable, given the politics involved in deciding on a new crown prince and heir apparent at the same time.’ It’s not a politics you’d see from the outside – Henderson describes it as a process around the palace boardroom. But it’s a process that will be stress tested as a new generation of princes, the grandsons of King Abdulaziz, compete to ascend. ‘I think the ruling family has a continuous debate. Publicly you won’t see any disagreements,’ said Adel Al Toraifi, a prominent columnist and political affairs columnist for Al-Riyadh.

‘But the second generation has its aspirations, and some of them are already part and very active in the political scene.’ He points to Prince Khaled Bin Sultan, Prince Faisal Bin Salman, and Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef among the notable grandsons of King Abdulaziz. But it won’t be their turn to rise unless the remaining sons of Abdulaziz – the brothers of the first generation – relinquish their rights for the sake of monarchical stability.

Just who sits in the throne matters for all the reasons you’d expect in an absolute monarchy. ‘Everything is up to grabs with a new King,’ Henderson told ABC News. ‘The Saudis will claim continuity…but the character of foreign policy, the character of domestic policy, will follow what the King wants it to be.’

Still, issues of oil policy and US-Saudi relations are seen relatively stable. It’s the threat of reversing his domestic changes, like the march forward on women’s rights, the efforts at economic development, and the reigning in of religious police, that worries people inside the Kingdom. 

‘If you look at every single Saudi blog they’re discussing it,’ said Hussein Dajani, a longtime Saudi resident. Now based in Doha, he has seen a shift in the discourse and expectations among Saudi netizens.

‘King Abdullah listens to the people. He said what people wanted to hear and he acted on it. That why he is extremely popular,’ said Dajani.

‘They now have greater demands for accountability from their leaders. That’s not something the next King can undo.’ Mohammed Al Qahtani, a political rights activist in Riyadh who argues for a constitutional monarchy, reflects an uncertainty among the Kingdom's pro-reform set. ‘The country is leaning toward a power struggle,’ he said. ‘We are pretty concerned about the future. When you have kids, when you have a family you worry.’ More links:
»` Simon Henderson for the Washington Institute: After King Abdullah | Thomas Lippman: Solving the Saudi Succession Puzzle
» ‘American Bedu’ Blog – former diplomat Carol Fleming on Letters to King Abdullah | Signs of Reform in Saudi Arabia
» BBC News: Saudi Arabia Country Profile
ISLAMIC FEMINISM ‘ON THE MOVE’ AMONG THE FORCES OF CHANGE”
If you think Islam and feminism don’t mix, then you’re missing a major force for change in the Muslim world. The named phenomenon of ‘Islamic Feminism’ emerged in the early 1990s, as women began calling for more rights and greater equality based on arguments from within Islamic texts.

They reasoned that the patriarchal and misogynistic practices of some Muslim countries – from domestic violence to women’s second-class status under the law – were not what Islam intended. Using the exercise of tafsir¸ or interpretation of the Koran, female religious scholars developed a body of knowledge calling for changes big and small – arguing for women muftis, against polygamy, and in support of equal status between husband and wife.

‘Islamic Feminism really turned the paradigm upside down, saying we live in modern societies and the Quran can be interpreted in ways that enhance justice and equality,’ said Margot Badran, an expert and author on the subject.

Today, Islamic feminism is ‘resolutely on the move,’ she writes, pointing to groups from the ‘Sisters in Islam’ of Indonesia to South African Muslims mixing genders in the mosque, to American scholar Amina Wadud, controversially leading Friday prayers in New York City. Saudi Arabia’s Dr. Mai Yamani and Iran’s Ziba Mir Hosseini helped build the literature of Islamic feminism, while Pakistani scholar Riffat Hassan forcefully argued that ‘Sexism is not Islam.’

In the Middle East especially, feminism has often needed Islam in order to make change.

‘If you want to reform family law in the Middle East, it being Islamic family law, then of course you have to use an Islamic argument to overturn it,’ said Badran. Family law covers issues like marriage, divorce, custody rights and multiple wives – and it has been the target for reform by many a feminist campaign. In Iran a coalition of feminists and reformist politicians pushed over elements of a controversial new family law that would have taxed women’s dowries and allowed men to take second wives without their first wife’s consent. In Egypt, activists made it easier for women to file for divorce, citing rules laid out by the Prophet Mohammed. In Morocco a coalition of Islamic and secular feminists working together succeeded in revising the Muslim Family Law, shifting it to an egalitarian model that treated men and women as equal heads of the family.

It’s that coalition of secular and Islamic feminists, says Margot Badran, that gets the most traction. In Lebanon, with its thriving secular space, has seen feminist action from the KAFA campaign against domestic violence to a local, culturally adapted production of the Vagina Monologues.

‘You’d tend to think that Lebanese women are very liberated, because they go dancing and wear miniskirts. But there’s a huge gap between appearance and how it is inside the home, said feminist and famed cartoon blogger Maya Zankoul.

‘Women are still beaten, harassed, not allowed to work. But they might be driving around with a big car. They may be very rich, but they don’t have their rights.’

Zankoul’s frustration is shared among activists, both secular and Islamic. In Yemen, women have fought to abolish child marriage, only to see conservative women fight them back. In Egypt efforts to use Islamic arguments to ban female genital mutilation have come up against Islamic arguments defending the practice – a ‘he said, she said’ of Koranic interpretation.

That hints at one limitations of the Islamic feminist approach. There are others.

‘When feminists try to use religion they are also promoting the idea that we should make our life decisions in accordance with standardized religious teachings rather than by appealing to a sense of equity or justice,’ wrote Hania Sholkamy, an anthropologist at the American University Cairo.

‘This utilitarian approach may win over some people but it may precipitate a bigger loss; that is the loss of independent reason.’

She goes on to argue that change is a matter of politics, and all politics of change are local. The most Arab and Muslim feminists can do is keep pushing, hoping to tilt the balance.   More links:
» Muslim Women’s Website MuslimahNews.com
» A look at Iran’s Women’s Movement Since the 2009 Election
» NOWLebanon speaks to Feminists of the Arab World, from a landmark Conference of Arab Feminists in 2009 | Tweets from @Nasawiya, an Arab feminist collective   MIDEAST TIDBITS

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