Mawtana Rabba and the Role of Climate Change and Plague in the Rise of Islam

Part Two:


Modern tree-ring dating techniques inform us that during the 6th century CE most of the world was enveloped in a 125-year-long mini Ice Age . It was caused by 1) eruption of an immensely powerful series of volcanoes in Ice Land during the years 536, 540 and 547, and 2) in the south west corner of Central Americas (modern el-Salvador), during the year 540, eruption of a volcano of such great power that it is counted among the top 10 most destructive volcanoes of the last 7000 years, and due to which the Maya civilization suffered a catastrophic collapse with more than 100,000 deaths.

The colossal volume of smoke released from these two volcanoes kept most of the world in a foggy darkness for many years, sun’s warmth remained distant, and average global temperature even during the summer months remained between two and twelve degrees celsius. Sixth century Roman historian Procopius wrote that “sunlight was as faint and empty of warmth as that of the moon.”

Due to this paucity of sunlight and its warmth during the sixth and early seventh centuries, most of the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Central Asia suffered a devastating series of famines, thousands emigrated from Central Asia to Middle East, Persia, Europe and India, but Arabia’s otherwise barren deserts enjoyed a historic period of high-yielding fertility.

Then in 541, a bubonic plague emerged in Egypt and spread with such swiftness that in a short while pathways from Egypt to China and the island of England began filling with dead bodies. The original culprit was a bacteria named Yersinia pestis which transmits to humans via flea carrying rats. An infected person starts to notice black or purplish buboes popping up on the skin, along with high fever, and if not treated, the person would most probably die within ten days.

During the next 200 years, between 536 and 745, Justinian plague kept recurring every ten to fifteen years. It seems from the writings of sixth century historians that the plague began in Kush (Ethiopia) and spread its trail of destruction via Egypt and Yemen to Palestine (Levant), Constantinople, and eventually, China and England. But modern genetic research reveals that Yersinia pestis first emerged in the Central asian mountain ranges of Tian Shan (heavenly/celestial mountains), also called Tengri Tagh (God/spirit mountains) in Turkic, evolved there, and possibly transmitted via trading vessels from India and Indian ocean to Africa and Egypt.

The principal sources available for studying this plague are written in four languages: primarily Syriac (the liturgical language of eastern Christianity), and then Greek, Latin, and some Arabic. Contemporary Syriac accounts named the plague “mawtana rabba.” The generic term for pestilence or epidemic disease in Syriac is mawtana, “mortality,” which corresponds to “waba” in Arabic, or sometimes simply mawta, “death.” A “great plague” is called a “mawtana rabba.” Later historians named it the Justinian Plague.

The lengthiest account on “mawtana rabba” is found in the Syriac Ecclesiastical History of the Bishop John of Ephesus. John (Youhanan in Syriac) of Ephesus was a native of Amida (modern Diyarbakr) in northern Mesopotamia (southern Turkey), and had the misfortune of traveling from Egypt to Constantinople in 541 AD. In Palestine, John wrote that he saw entire town populations wiped out. “During the tumult and intensity of the pestilence,” he wrote, “we journeyed from Syria to the capital. Day after day we, too, used to knock at the door of the grave along with everyone else. We used to think that if there would be evening, death would come upon us suddenly in the night. Although the next morning would come, we used to face the grave during the whole day as we looked at the devastated and moaning villages in these regions, and at corpses lying on the ground with no one to gather them.”

According to John, some people carried corpses all day, while others spent the day digging graves. Houses and farms were abandoned; animals forgot their domestication. “Crops of wheat in fertile fields located in all the regions through which we passed from Syria up through Thrace were white and standing but there was no one to reap them and store the wheat. Vineyards, whose picking season came and went, shed their leaves, since winter was severe, but kept their fruits hanging on their vines, and there was no one to pick them or press them.” In his Lives of the Eastern Saints, John reported on one monastery that buried eighty-four of its members who had died of the plague. He writes that in Constantinople, more than 10,000 were dying each day, and when the number exceeded 230,000 the administrators stopped counting.

Other Syriac writings contain details of later outbreaks in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, including the Chronicle of Zuqnın, whose monastic author, in recounting the epidemic of 743–745 under Umayyads, specified that the victims had swellings in the groin, the armpit, or the neck. The Zuqnın Chronicle records a pestilence (mawtana) that broke out in Mesopotamia in during 546 and 547 CE, and a great pestilence (mawtana rabba) that broke out at Amida in during 557–558 CE, where 35,000 people died within three months.

The principal Greek source is the work of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who was present at the court of Justinian in Constantinople in the early 540s. In his Persian War, Procopius wrote, “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. . . . It started among the Egyptians. Then it moved to Palestine and from there spread over the whole world. . . . In the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of the spring.” He says that for the majority of those struck, fever was the first sign, then developed after a few days a bubonic swelling, either in the groin, in the armpit, or beside the ears. He reports that the mortality rose alarmingly, eventually reaching more than ten thousand each day. Procopius also mentions that the emperor himself was taken ill. Justinian, however, recovered and reigned for two more decades.

The lawyer Agathias undertook to continue the history of Procopius. He wrote that after 544 when plague ceased in Constantinople, it had never really stopped but simply moved on from place to place, until it returned to the city almost as though it had been cheated on the first occasion into a needlessly hasty departure. This was the spring of 558, when “a second outbreak of plague swept the capital, destroying a vast number of people.” The form the epidemic took was not unlike that of the earlier outbreak. A swelling in the glands in the groin was accompanied by a high fever that raged night and day with unabated intensity and never left its victim until the moment of death.

In churches, temples, roads, and caravanserais people would often drop dead. Many died while hoisting the dead bodies of their loved ones. One Nestorian priest from Basra wrote that a seemingly healthy man strolling in front of him suddenly opened his mouth wide, winced as if a knife had ripped him, and then dropped dead. John of Ephesus painted such haunting images in his account as if narrating a zombie movie: healthy people in streets swirling down as if dazed and died, their bellies stretched beyond human limits, mouths wide open, lifeless eyes staring at howling winds, hands reaching out as if clasping their souls back, and then their bellies would rip, spilling pus mixed with blood which would run down the streets as if water. Women quarters filled with bodies, their mouths open, and bellies stretched wide. An unbearable stench tyrannizing entire cities.

From the North African city of Carthage, we have testimony of the Latin poet Corippus. In 549 he recited at Carthage his epic poem, the Johannis, on the recently concluded war between the Byzantine army and Berber tribes. In the midst of the war a terrible pestilence arrived by sea. Death was so widespread, he reports, that people became desensitized to it, no longer shedding tears even for their loved ones or observing those rites traditionally due the deceased. Social breakdown was further evident in the scramble among survivors to take possession of the properties and belongings of the victims. Wealthy widows were more sought after than young maidens. References to a later plague epidemic in North Africa, in 599 and 600, are found in the correspondence of Pope Gregory the Great.

Modern historians advise caution in accepting these accounts and numbers prima facie, and it’s true that often medieval authors gave high numbers only to signify the intensity of an event. But what’s undeniable is that almost all of these chronicles share same tale of horrors, of symptoms and signs, of periodic waves, that had devastated their home towns. The contemporary narrative sources available to the historian, be they from East or West, written in Latin, Greek, Syriac, or Arabic, speak with one voice in describing the plague as having had a major demographic impact on communities, urban and rural alike. 

Not unlike most modern maladies, “mawtana rabba” too first descended upon the impoverished neighborhoods of a city, and then advanced to the palatial elites. And somewhat like the modern world, all sorts of rumors on its possible causes started to spread before the plague’s actual descent. The rumor among Palestinians was that dark headless men holding long copper rods were visiting the cities from the ocean every night in glistening copper boats. In Constantinople, people started acting on the odd rumor that if plates and pots made with clay were to be thrown on the ground from the top most windows of the house, the plague will flee. First the men and women of one neighborhood began throwing down their dishes, then second, and third, and for three days nobody was to be seen at the city streets because all were busy slinging their dishes down. And when that didn’t work, people started acting on another rumor that the angel of plague approaches them in the form of a priest or monk, and they started yelling at priests and monks to leave them alone, that they still have time left in this world. When leaving their homes, people would hang tags with their names and addresses on their necks.

Even those who managed to recover suffered intense fatigue for years, buboes emerging and popping, spilling pus down their bodies, not a single strand of hair left on their heads. It became hard to distinguish a monk from a commoner.

Usually plague-ridden dead bodies were buried in mass graves outside the city gates, or they’d be collected in large stacks and tossed via boats into oceans. As the numbers of dead escalated, cities further dipped into chaos, and people began abandoning the traditional religious rites offered for their dead. When no one was left to sink or bury the dead, the emperor Justinian ordered his ministers to invite the tribes inhabiting the mountains, and offer them as much gold as they might want but to do this godawful job. According to his minister Theodore, these tribals first stamped down on these bodies and then bundled them together, then they buried them inside giant pits dug outside the city.

The volume of trade and of production declined generally in the mid-sixth century. In some places, new housing ceased. The coastal cities (the greatest centers of wealth) were hit first and hardest, and perhaps their weaknesses rippled through the Mediterranean lands. Both Kulikowski (in Visigothic Spain) and Peter Sarris (in Byzantine lands) have detected attempts to tie increasingly scarce labor to land, attempts especially notable in a time of legal and economic turmoil.

In his edict, Justinian complains of how, in the wake of the plague, tradesmen, artisans, and agricultural workers had given themselves over to avarice and were demanding twice or even three times the prices and wages that had hitherto been the norm. The emperor decreed that those responsible for issuing wages and stipends to building workers, agricultural workers, or any other group of workers were not to credit them with anything more than their customary remuneration. Likewise, Banaji’s statistical analysis of Egyptian land-leases recorded among the papyri would appear to record a marked improvement in the security of tenure enjoyed by lessees from the middle of the sixth century onward. From the first half of the sixth century to the second, the proportion of leases of indefinite duration increased from 17.2% to 39.4%. The proportion of leases of only one year’s duration declined over the same period from 29.3% to 9.1%

That the plague visited Yemen appears to be corroborated by the inscription of Abraha on the dam at Ma’rib dated 543 CE, which refers to death and sickness striking the community at Ma’rib; the dam was repaired when the fatal epidemic had passed. This outbreak of bubonic plague lasted longer in the east. At the end of his account of the three years of plague, John of Ephesus remarks that “these same calamities still persist in the eastern territories and are not over.” The pre-Islamic Arab poet Hassan Ibn Thabit records the pestilence, described as “the stinging of the jinn,” devastating the rural population of the empire’s eastern fringes. It appears to have reached China by the early seventh century.

“Mawtana Rabba” kept returning in waves for more than 200 years. The Syrian Christian priest Evagrius wrote that during the last decade of 6th century “in a total of 210 years from 541 to 750, there were about eighteen outbreaks of the plague.” This amounts to an average of one outbreak about every 11.6 years. This seems to apply to the first six plague waves for which we can compute the inter-epidemic intervals for Constantinople. These range approximately from eleven to seventeen years, with an average of 14.2 years, a fact corroborated by Evagrius, who records that the plague seemingly broke out during the first or the second year of the indiction cycle, indicating a periodicity of roughly fifteen years. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth wave, Syria was reportedly hit on all six waves, with inter-epidemic periods ranging from five to nine years and an average of 6.6 years.

Not unlike our times, people in sixth century reached for all kinds of explanations. We know, via archeology, that there was a spike in construction of new churches and monasteries. On the other hand, according to John of Ephesus, some Egyptian and Palestinian towns returned to worshipping their idols. As the plague was ravaging Egypt and Alexandria in September 541, crowds in Constantinople gathered round a woman who had gone into ecstasy and was claiming that in three days time the sea would rise and swallow everything. Agathias narrates case that occurred in Constantinople in 557 when the city had been visited by a devastating earthquake. Some individuals claiming to be prophets or possessed by demons began announcing that even worse catastrophes were imminent. These are some of the many testimonies that bear witness to the eschatological climate that must have been dominant at the time. Historian Procopius wrote from Constantinople that, “a plague of such deadly nature has spread from Egypt and Palestine to the rest of the world that it seems the end times are imminent.” 

The plague was perceived in both a religious and a rational way. According to the religious approach, plagues were an expression of divine retribution or punishment, and the result of human sins, either individual or collective, and that it announces the end times. This was a notion central to both popular Greek and Jewish thought. Although in the New Testament, Christ does not present disease as a necessary result of sin, the Christian interpretation of disease established and stressed exactly this relation. In Byzantine texts dealing with the plague, this was the dominant opinion. Collective sin of people bringing about the just divine wrath in the form of the plague. In two polemical instances, this transgression is not presented as collective, but as individual: Justinian, termed “lord of demons” in Procopius’ Anecdota, is made solely responsible for the plague, as is the iconoclastic Emperor Constantine V by iconophile authors.

Youhanan Bar Penkaye wrote that this collective onset of famines, earthquakes, and plagues is an irrefutable sign of end times. Procopius wrote that there could not be an earthly or natural explanation of this plague, it must have been sent directly from God almighty himself. John of Ephesus wrote that an angel whose duty is to dissociate humans from worldly desires and to guide them on a spiritual path towards God is responsible for this plague, that in his eyes this plague is a lash of mercy from God, and an opportunity to plead God for forgiveness. On the other hand, according to the Greek priest Zachariah, this plague was directly from Satan who was left on a leash by the God so that he could punish people for their sins.

Contrary to this divine aetiology, a rational interpretation of disease had been first established almost a thousand years ago by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.” According to him, epidemic diseases were defined as follows: “When a large number of people all catch the same disease at the same time, the cause must be ascribed to something common to all and which they all use; in other words to what they all breathe.” This definition was later adopted by the other great medical personality of Antiquity, Galen, and retained its authority throughout the Middle Ages in both Islamic and Christian world. The malignant air responsible for these outbreaks was called miasma.

Even more remarkable in this respect is Anastasius of Sinai’s Questions and Answers, a work written at the very end of the seventh century. Question 114 addresses the topic whether it is possible to escape the plague by fleeing to another location. Anastasius answers with a piece on the origin of plagues. They either break out as a result of divine chastisement or because of corrupt air, vapors, pollution, and stench. In the first case, they cannot be escaped, but in the second, with God’s will, flight to a location with healthier air will often help avoid death. This is Anastasius’ effort to offer a compromise between “Hellenistic rationalism and Christian views on direct divine intervention,” between a “pre-Christian medical and physiological tradition” and the Judeo-Christian model of disease as “chastisement from heaven . . . designed to drive out the evils afflicting the body politic.”

To what extent was this series of plagues, famines, and the little Ice Age responsible for the destruction of the Roman and Persian empires and the emergence of Islam?

Historian Peter Sarris writes in his excellent book Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam that “a diminution in tax revenues caused by the demographic impact of bubonic plague and aristocratic tax evasion appears to have occasioned mounting difficulties in paying the army. It is in this context that we should understand the attempted reduction in military pay proposed by the Emperor Maurice in 588.” (In 588 the garrison at the important frontier city of Martyropolis simply handed it over to the Persians, declaring that they ‘would not be ruled over by a shopkeeper.’ That same year, much of the imperial field army, stationed at Monocarton near Edessa, rose up in rebellion against the Emperor Maurice’s proposed 25 per cent reduction in military pay.)

He notes, “Failure to pay the army adequately or on time, however, tended to lead to desertion, defection, or revolt, as most vividly revealed by the Eastern field army’s response to Maurice’s attempted cuts. Moreover, at some point in the late sixth century, it appears to have become common for the cash component of the stipend issued to garrison troops to be paid in copper rather than gold. Consequently, the collapse in the purchasing power of the copper follis from the reign of Justin II onwards is likely to have had ever more pronounced implications for the loyalty and morale of the military rank and file, as well as of the civilian population of the empire.”

Eventually, Rome under the astute leadership of Heraclius managed to defeat Persia, but, according to professor Sarris, “The Eastern Roman Empire was thus restored territorially, but it was a shadow of its former self. The imperial concentration on the East had necessarily led to a further weakening of its position in the Balkans … Many of the cities of Anatolia and Asia Minor had been ransacked by the armies of the shah or exhausted by the fiscal demands of Heraclius’ war effort. In Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, the reassertion of imperial control at this point must have been largely nominal.”

(If you like what I do, please please consider supporting me: https://ko-fi.com/syedmuzammil1225 )

In Part three, Mawtana Rabba in Persia, more on the 6th century war between Rome and Persia, and the five waves of plagues under Umayyads.

Part 1: https://www.brownpundits.com/2021/10/09/the-plagues-of-justinian-and-amwas-the-200-years-long-series-of-plagues-and-pestilence-and-the-conquest-of-muslims-over-rome-and-persia/

Bibliography:

History of al-Tabari: The Conquest of Iraq, SouthWestern Persia, and Egypt Vol XIII (Trans. Gautier H. A. Juynboll)

Arabic Plague Chronologies and Treatises Social and Historical Factors in the Formation of a Literary Genre, Lawrence I. Conrad

TA ‘UN AND W’ABA: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam, Lawrence I. Conrad

The Comparative Communal Responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian Societies by Michael W. Dols

Epidemic disease in central Syria in the late sixth century: Some new insights from the verse of Hassān ibn Thābit, Lawrence I. Conrad

Abraha and Muḥammad: Some Observations Apropos of Chronology and Literary “topoi” in the Early Arabic Historical Tradition, Lawrence I. Conrad

Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic, Lester K. Little

Historians and Epidemics: Simple Questions, Complex Answers, Jo N. Hays

‘For Whom Does the Writer Write?’: The First Bubonic Plague Pandemic According to Syriac Sources, Michael G. Morony

Justinianic Plague in Syria and the Archaeological Evidence, Hugh N. Kennedy

Crime and Punishment: The Plague in the Byzantine Empire, 541–749, Dionysios Stathakopoulos

Bubonic Plague in Byzantium: The Evidence of Non-Literary Sources, Peter Sarris

Procopius and the Sixth Century, Averil Cameron

When Numbers Don’t Count: Changing Perspectives on the Justinianic Plague, Monica H. Green

Rejecting Catastrophe: The Case of the Justinianic Plague, Lee Mordechai, Merle Eisenberg

Ancient Yersinia pestis genomes from across Western Europe reveal early diversification during the First Pandemic (541–750), Marcel Keller and others

The Political and Social Role of Khurasan under Abbasid Rule 747-820, Elton L. Daniel

The Confluence of Two Seas: India and Arabia

Centuries ago, the Mughal Prince, Dara Shikoh wrote a treatise on the similarities of Hinduism and Islam – Majma-ul-Bahrain or The Confluence of Two Seas. Wading through the songs of sages born on holy riverbanks, Dara discovered striking similarities in Vedic verses with his beloved Sufi stanzas. Dara attempted to bridge Indian and Arab minds to not only bring material peace to communities in strife but also achieve inner peace by uncovering a quintessential spiritual unity.

Dara’s quest would be cut short by his fanatic brother, Aurangzeb, who would usurp the throne and execute Dara for apostasy. A reign of religious terror followed as Aurangzeb’s extremism left permanent scars on the subcontinent until the sparks of saffron would strike back as the upstart Marathas upended the Mughals into obscurity.

Yet, this is just a part of a much more ancient interaction. Before Islam galloped across the world, Arabs were aware of the subcontinent, al-Hind, and an interesting set of interactions played out. There is no grand trend or narrative here, but I want to tell you the story of an Arabia before and after Islam and how it spoke to an India that was eternally Hindu.

Continue reading The Confluence of Two Seas: India and Arabia

The Ambition of the Emirates

 

For a large part of history, the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula were on the fringe in the rise and fall of empires. They alternated raiding and trading as this wheel of fire rolled on across the dunes. But eventually, the Arabian caravan would be equipped with both sword and word to make haste across the Old World in a relentless raid that would change both history and humanity.

Yet just as quickly as the prized Arabian horses would gallop into newly conquered lands, the Arabs would soon scatter leaving their language, faith, and the prestige of their roots behind in strange lands. Tribalism trumped their newfound unity and the Arabs would once again retreat into their wildernesses and pilgrimages.

That is until wealth erupted from its wastelands. The old elites of the Middle East would now return from their desert exile to begin another round of a game of thrones.

Continue reading The Ambition of the Emirates

The Shadow Sultanate: Qatar

Influence is an art. It is a dance of subtlety and force. A moving of the mind and a journey of the heart. It is difficult enough to master at an individual level; so how can one possibly master it at a geopolitical level?

Yet, influence is the invisible hand in geopolitics. Hard to quantify and in constant flux, some countries wield it with brute might, while other countries seduce their counterparts into submission.

Qatar may be the per square mile most influential nation in the world. This little, lavish country has mastered the painting of perceptions through the art of influence. And more than that, Qatar has turned its art into action.

Continue reading The Shadow Sultanate: Qatar

Browncast episode 37: Arabian Linguistics, pre-Islamic Arabia

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunesSpotify,  and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…).

Picture for al-jallad.1In this episode we talk to Dr Ahmed Al Jallad, Sofia Chair of Arabic Studies at Ohio State University. Dr Jallad is an expert on the languages and scripts of pre-Islamic Arabia. We talk about the origins of Arabic (most likely in the Northwest of the peninsula and not in the South as previously believed), the development of the Arabic script (most likely from Nabatean Arabic) and the inscriptions of the region (In the 6th Century CE the ones that do reference a religion mostly reference Christianity, not the pagan gods of pre-Islamic Arabia that dominate our vision of the “era of Jahiliya”..

Islamic Extremists, Human Rights and Evangelical Christians

Abstract:

Is Sri Lanka (and similar small states) going to be the frontline between Islamic Caliphate versus Human Rights/Evangelical Christian Empire. Like Vietnam was a proxy War/battlefield between the goal of a Communist vs Capitalist World Empire.

Post WW2, Evangelical Christianity (thru the US) and “Human Rights” (thru US and Europe) have been terrorizing the Mid East for over half a decade.

What is the difference between

  • a) Bombing multiple countries to install “Human Rights” compliant with the Empire of the West.
  • b) or Bombs with the goal of establishing Sharia Law compliant Caliphate Empire.
U.S. bombs  southern Baghdad, killing another six civilian

Pre WW2 Europe (2) was the foremost in promoting “Christian Values” while obviously exploiting and looting the resources of brown and yellow heathen savages.
Post WW2, Europe and the US has redefined itself as advocates of Human Rights illegally supporting war either (see the box below for examples)

      • by acting unilaterally
      • using false evidence for UN resolution
      • acting beyond UN resolutions

In order to invade Iraq, Colin Powell stood on the UN floor and assured that Iraq had WMD. Colin Powell later regretted his speech.
A spokesperson for the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) falsely defended the bombing of Libya as within UN resolution. The UN resolution was only to establish a no fly zone. The Norwegian aircraft dropped 588 bombs

To Europe, US markets the wars as protecting Human Rights or the (in)famous Right to Protect (R2P) of Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton. At home in the US sells  Human Rights as Gods Wish/A Just War to the very important Evangelical home base to garner support for Iraq War and bombing of Libya.

No MSM writeup says, Christian Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama instigated a Just War.  However, George W. Bush is a member of the United Methodist Church. Barack Obama is and has been a member of Evangelical Churches. Evangelical leaders post 9/11 signed an open letter to Bush approving war on Iraq satisfied the criteria of Christian “Just-war” theory. ( see here and here)

“Iraq represents that existential threat we have from global Islamic Jihadists. “We must defeat it in Iraq, Afghanistan and then act preemptively to destroy it wherever it emerges.”.

“Throughout Scripture, there is evidence that God favors war for divine reasons and sometimes uses it to accomplish his will. He has also given governments and their citizens very specific responsibilities in regards to this matter,” Charles Stanley, Televangelist, pastor First Baptist Church of Atlanta and In Touch Ministries said in a sermon broadcast internationally on his television program.,

As one can see, there is not much difference between Christian and Islamic priests advising people and countries to wage war.

Two examples of US and European Post World War 2 atrocities
1953 Iran: CIA coup overthrows the democratically elected MP Mosaddegh .

1980-1988 Iraq Iran War:

  • Support for Iraq
  • USS Vincennes shoots down Iran Air Flight 655 on 3 July 1988, killing all 290
  • Chemical weapons supplied to Iraq by US, UK,  Netherlands and German companies

It is pretty clear, the US and Europe with the blessings of the Evangelicals/Human Rights Religion has been the first instigators in the Mid-East.  The Muslim response has been slow and generally localized to places of regime change and invasions.  With the creation of Al-Qaeda and ISIS the war has been fought on a larger geographical terrain.

Now the war between Evangelicals/Human Rights Religion and Islamic Jihad has been taken worldwide. Suicide bomber cells now include family groups including children. Suicide bombers attack churches, tourist hotels and beaches where westerners congregate.  T

Unhappily, Islamic extremism is also an opportunity for Western powers to establish a foothold.  In Sri Lanka.  The US wants to sign a  secretive Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with clauses to exclude the American soldiers from the local jurisdiction.  Liberal Human Rights types and Westernized   Sri Lankans (many are Christians, like current PM Ranil Wickremasinghe) would welcome the West with open arms.  This would result in Sri Lanka being a proxy battle field for Western powers and the Islamic Caliphate.  Sri Lanka should find its own solution to keep Christian/Islamic wars out of its shores.

(1)Disclosure. Author is a Tamil by Heritage, Atheist, though born to an  Evangelical Christian family, post graduate education and work in the US.
(2) The Catholic Church has much blood in the past. Post WW2 as far as I know, no war has been justified by the Vatican.

Other readings

Islam, Extremism & Hypocrisy, Nur Yalman (2017)
Short history of Wahabism to ISIS

https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/islam-extremism-hypocrisy/

History of Wahabi violence in Sri Lanka.
http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190505/sunday-times-2/the-need-to-identify-the-enemy-within-347960.html

From Sri Lanka to Indonesia, more mothers are becoming suicide bombers
– and killing their children too
https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/society/article/3008808/sri-lanka-indonesia-more-mothers-are-becoming-suicide-bombers-and?

Witches Brew. Saudis, Iran, Pakistan

From Dr Hamid Hussain

18 February 2019

Few questions came my way.  I also keep in touch with our Jewish cousins in Israel and some interesting input came from that side

Hamid

Witches Brew

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when
they do it from religious conviction.”
          Blaise Pascal

Thanks to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, we are more educated and enlightened.  Recent conference in Warsaw was an open conference and not a secret meeting. Everyone was euphoric but at the same time somehow uncomfortable and wanted to qualify his statement or simply walk back what they said.  Bibi said that ‘in a room of some 60 foreign ministers, representatives of dozens of governments, an Israeli Prime Minister and the foreign ministers of leading Arab countries stood together and spoke with unusual force, clarity and unity against the common threat of the Iranian regime”.  His official twitter account noted ‘the Arab states were sitting together with Israel to advance the common interest of war with Iran”.  This was later deleted and used the phrase ‘combating Iran’.  Bibi used the Hebrew word ‘milchama’ that means war.  Same video clip in which Bibi is speaking in Hebrew was also later edited.

Bibi’s office also shared a video with Israeli journalists of a panel that was closed to the media.  Foreign Minister of State of Saudi Arabia and Foreign Ministers of United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain were on the panel and moderator was former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross. The three Arab diplomats poured their hearts to the audience. Here are examples of some of the exact quotes.  When asked by Dennis Ross about his view of Israeli strikes on Iranian targets inside Syria, UAE foreign minister Shaikh Abdullah bin Zaid al’Nahayan justified Israeli actions by stating that ‘every nation has the right to defend itself, when it is challenged by another nation’.  Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa said, “we grew up talking about the Israel-Palestine issue as the most important issue” but then ‘at a later stage, we saw a bigger challenge, we saw a more toxic one – in fact more toxic one in our history – that came from the Islamic Republic’.  Saudi Foreign Minister of State Adel al Jubair blamed Iran for Israel-Palestinian issue stating that ‘Iran’s evil behavior destabilized the region, making Israeli-Palestinian peace impossible to achieve”. 

In the opening session, Yemen’s foreign minister Khalid Al Yemeni was sitting next to Bibi.  When he came under criticism from Arab public opinion, he said that it was not his fault but fault of those organizing the conference. He then dug a deeper hole by saying that ‘participation in Warsaw was not to discuss Palestine but to rally international community to confront the Iranian expansionism in Yemen”. 

I personally believe that a genuine effort of Arab-Israeli entente is essential.  More open interaction, discussion at public level to prepare the ground and then a meaningful diplomatic effort to reach normalization.  However, they must remember that they are the defeated party and hence will get what a loser gets.  Reminds me Henry Kissinger’s words.  In the aftermath of 1973 war, when Anwar Sadat started his long list of demands, Kissinger replied. “Mr. President; you have lost the war, but you are asking for the spoils of the victor”.  On part of Israel, they are making the same mistake of aligning with tyrants of Muslim countries rather than building bridges with populations. Same euphoria over four decades ago with Shah of Iran and his repressive regime.  Ordinary Iranian saw Israel as partner of the oppressor and when the tables were turned, Israel found a new non-Arab foe.  The same fretting of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman not realizing that Saudi throne is on the shakiest sand dunes of its history.  One can only guess what kinds of demons will be unleashed when Arabia turns the page of Saudi prefix. Internally, demographically and ideologically, Israel has taken a sharp right turn.  In this environment, annexation movement is gaining more strength making a two-state solution almost impossible.  On part of Palestinians, they must fight their own battles and before that put their own house in order. It is delusional to think that Arab regimes or Iran who have not given freedom to their own people will somehow take them on the freedom train. 

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out the future battlegrounds.  Some one sent me a clip of Adel al Jubair’s statement of a long list of charge sheet against Iran during a press conference in Islamabad. I don’t envy Pakistani decision makers. They are stuck in a bind. Now, widening intelligence net of Iran working on Shia and Barelvi adherents and Saudi Arabia doling money to their ownsalafi brands will work on new recruits for coming sectarian wars. Everyone needs to work overtime, reach out to his neighbor to make sure that their next generation is not lost in another fratricidal war. 

To be sure, Iranian regime is no boy scout.  Clerics usurping power and now dissent is a crime as well as a sin.  Revolution’s own ideologue Dr. Ali Shariati had warned against this and in his view ‘of all dictatorships, the dictatorship of clerics was the worse’ and he called it ‘istibdad-e-rouhani’(religiously sanctioned oppression). 

In fact, regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran are mirror image of each other.  They are poster child of what exactly is wrong with the political map of Muslim world in general. Ruling under the guise of religion both are deeply sectarian, representing themselves as savior of their respective sects and severely repressing their own people.  Mutual hatred is to a level where they are sowing the seeds of disasters all over the globe. They are in competition of who can wreck more havoc in their respective grounds of blood sport in Yemen and Syria. The only hope is the youth of these societies where they stand up and challenge their own fathers refusing to continue the sectarian wars that their forefathers started fourteen hundred years ago.

“I will say this much for the nobility: that tyrannical, murderous, rapacious, and morally rotten as they were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious”.

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Hamid Hussain

[email protected]

18 February 2019

 

Kabuki Dance – Pakistan’s Balancing Act

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Following was in response to several questions regarding Pakistan’s regional challenges and current policies.

 Kabuki Dance – Pakistan’s Balancing Act

Hamid Hussain

Pakistan’s challenging regional environment has taken some new turns and new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying to cope up with these challenges.  Government’s major advantage is that it has no clash with the dominant army.  In many areas of foreign policy, it has ceded significant ground to the army.

Pakistan is in a difficult spot on three issues. First is rapid pace of negotiations between Taliban and Americans with projected quick withdrawal of American troops, second is isolation of Iran and third is potential entanglement in intra-Arab rivalry with United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia on one and Qatar on the other side.  Pakistan is facing these regional challenges in the background of internal political instability and very serious economic downward trend.  Part of political instability and associated economic meltdown is due to self-inflicted wounds.  Departing from the normal process of check and balance, judiciary and army played an active role in tuning up the system that will have its own set of consequences. It has widened the political gulf and added new fissures.

Regional challenges of Pakistan are directly linked with American policies.  We are living in a Trumpian world that has sowed a lot of confusion on all fronts.  Every country and non-state player is adjusting positions at such a rapid speed that it is hard to make sense of every move.  Pakistan is also caught in this Trumpian world on several fronts.

US policy is in disarray with no coordination between different government agencies.  President Trump is using single point agents without full institutional support behind these efforts.  In many cases, some power centers of Washington are diametrically opposed to President’s efforts.   It is probably right time for withdrawal of American troops from both Syria and Afghanistan. Trump may have realized what Christopher Fettweis wrote in 2008 in his book Losing Hurts Twice as Bad that “bringing peace to every corner of the globe, even those whose stability we have wrecked through our own incompetence, is not necessarily in the strategic interest of the United States”.   However, the method in which it is being done has confused both allies and foes.  American intelligence agencies are publicly disagreeing with Trump that is unprecedented.  In late January 2019, in a hearing at Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence and heads of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) contradicted Trump on security issues.  They told the committee that Iran was still abiding by the nuclear deal.  Trump had pulled out of the deal stating that Tehran had broken the deal.  Furious Trump sent his twitter tirade saying that ‘the intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naïve when it comes to the dangers of Iran.  They are wrong’.  Continue reading Kabuki Dance – Pakistan’s Balancing Act

Saudi Arabia; Kingdom at the Crossroads..

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Overview of challenges faced by Saudi Arabia and role of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS). His meteoric rise from obscurity in an interesting phenomenon.

“Men in great fortunes are strangers to themselves, and while they are in the puzzle of business they have no time to tend to their health either of body or mind”.  Francis Bacon’s Of Great Place

Enjoy

Hamid

 

Kingdom at Crossroads

Hamid Hussain

“We always take criticism from our friends.  If we are wrong, we need to hear that we are wrong.  But if we are not wrong, we need to hear support from our friends.  What I request is that the thing you actually believe, to say it”.  Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman interview with The Economist, January 6, 2016

External environment of Saudi Arabia changed dramatically in the aftermath of murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018.  It made international headlines and many started to ask questions about Saudi Arabia and the royal family.  This event also strained relationship of Saudi Arabia with its western allies as governments came under increasing pressure to raise this issue.

Saudi Arabia operates in a zone of opacity and not much is known about royal family dynamics and Saudi public opinion.  Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (nick named MBS) moved rapidly to consolidate all power centers under his own personal command since the ascension of his father King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz to the throne in 2015.  Very little is known about how MBS consolidated his power inside the Kingdom.  He also broke with the tradition of family consensus and removed many powerful royal family members and their sympathizers from important centers of power.

MBS was first appointed Defence Minister and in this capacity, he gradually took control of all branches of the military. Defence procurement and defense construction contracts are a major source of patronage and in June 2017, MBS took control of this cash cow of patronage.  He established Saudi Arabia Military Industries (SAMI) and made it a defense subsidiary of Public Investment Fund (PIF).  PIF is country’s sovereign wealth fund under direct control of MBS. In August 2017, General Authority Military Industries (GAMI) was established and made responsible for all defense procurement.  SAMI and GAMI are controlled by an inter-ministerial committee headed by MBS.  In July 2017, commander of Royal Guard was removed, and six months later Chief of Staff of land forces and air force and air defense commanders were also removed.  Within few months of becoming heir apparent, MBS was in full control of operational and economic aspects of all defense establishments.

Parallel to these developments, interior ministry; a potential rival power center that had become a behemoth patronage center of deposed Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef was gradually neutralized. In July 2017, a new ministerial level agency named Presidency of State Security (PSS) was established that reported to Crown Prince.  Counter-terrorism, internal surveillance, cyber-intelligence and national information center functions of interior ministry were transferred to PSS. MBS also took control of all economic activities as Chairman of Council of Economic and Development Affairs.  In this capacity, he cancelled and revised many previous civilian contracts most likely creating new networks of patronage loyal to him. Continue reading Saudi Arabia; Kingdom at the Crossroads..

Dynamics of the Saudi Royal Family

From Dr Hamid Hussain

This piece written in summer of 2017 is a backgrounder for Kingdom at a crossroad.  This will help in understanding the background to my upcoming piece about challenges faced by the Kingdom in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi murder. Stay tuned.

Hamid

Royal Rumble – Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family

Hamid Hussain

 ‘In a western democracy, you lose touch with your people, you lose elections; in a monarchy, you lose your head’.  Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Former Saudi ambassador to Washington.

 

 In the last two years, Saudi Arabia has gone through many changes.  Absolute monarchies are not easy to decipher.  There are many opacities and it is very difficult for any outside observer to have a real sense of events.  Two main factors are very limited expression by Saudis in their own country and opaque decision making process in the form of decrees with flavor of palace intrigue.  A Saudi will not express his honest view in the presence of another Saudi due to fear factor.  In view of these limitations, the perspective of an outsider has severe limitations.

Current system of governance of the country is based on accession to throne of one of the sons of the founder of the country Abdul Aziz bin Abdur Rahman al-Saud (d. 1953).  He works with other family members especially senior princes, Council of Ministers (most of whom are also royal family members) and Council of Senior Clerics in running day to day affairs of the country.  There is a fair amount of competition among all these groups about various issues and King carefully balances his act to avoid open conflict.

In January 2015, Salman bin Abdul Aziz ascended to Saudi throne after the death of his brother Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.  He came quite late into the complex inner power circle of the al Saudi royal family.  He was appointed Governor of Riyadh province in 1962; a post he held until 2011 when he was appointed Defence Minister.  For five decades, his main influence was in business and media through his sons and a half-brother (Sattam bin Abdul Aziz).  His sons controlled different business and media interests.  Abdul Aziz was Assistant & Deputy Minister of Oil and now Minister of State for Energy Affairs, Faisal owned Sharq-al-Awst newspaper and appointed Governor of Medina in 2013.  Sultan is a pilot and worked at Saudi Ministry of Information.  He now heads tourism commission with the rank of a minister.  Khalid is also a fighter pilot and in April 2017 appointed ambassador to Washington.  Turki, Saud, Rakan and Nayef are little known and involved in various business ventures.  Fahad; a business tycoon and Ahmad with media interests died in their 40s from heart disease.  Continue reading Dynamics of the Saudi Royal Family

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