By Saqib Akbar

News reports coming from Saudi Arabia reveal that a new understanding of religion is evolving and expanding there. In the recent month, Sheikh Abduallah Al Mutlaq, a member of Saudi Arabia's Council of Senior Scholars – the kingdom’s highest religious body – said during a television program that Muslim women should dress modestly, but that this did not necessitate wearing the Abaya (full-body covering). He said that Saudi women need not wear Abaya in public places. He also said: "More than 90 per cent of pious Muslim women in the Islamic world do not wear Aabayas. So we should not force people to wear Abayas."

According to a BBC report, this is the first time that such a statement has come to fore from any senior Saudi religious scholar. It is not that there is no criticism against such kind of statements representing ‘moderate Islam’. There certainly is a reaction. However, it seems that the Saudi society is gradually throwing itself into the new world by breaking or lifting the previous restrictions. No official decision has been taken yet with regard to Al Mutlaq’s statement and there is no permission for Saudi women to come out in public places without wearing Abaya. However, such kind of statements does tell that very soon official permission will be granted in this regard. It does not sound bizarre and far-fetched to say that such statements point to the future strategy of the government. That is why it is said in the report that this statement of Sheikh Al Mutlaq is part of the recently introduced series of reforms spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to modernize the Saudi society, and it appears, as a result of these measures, that progress is being made in various fields. So, in a Royal decree issued in 2017, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women drivers.

Some scholars say Saudi women should not use decorative Abayas and make-ups. The views of these scholars are indicative of the condition of the Saudi society as yet. But now pictures of some Saudi gatherings have emerged in which Saudi women are seen wearing attractive and diverse coloured Abayas and scarves. Colorful and different types of Abayas are becoming popular in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Islamic world. This year on January 12, Saudi women were allowed into a sports stadium for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia to watch a men’s football match. The women were also able to attend a second match on the following day and a third one on 18 January. They watched these games with great zeal and enthusiasm. According to media reports, many spectators were seen singing traditional songs and dancing to drum beats. With fans cheering for their teams, the stadium was also reverberating with high-pitched slogans. Besides men, women had also come from different cities to watch the clash between two local teams. Male and female students watching the game were very lively and excited.

Before this, women were not allowed to enter Saudi Arabia without a Mahram (an adult, male blood relative or husband), and this restriction is enforced even during Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage. But now this ban has generally been lifted. However, it is not apparent will this permission be granted to those going to the kingdom for the purpose of Hajj and Umrah. A discussion in this regard has already started.

A women’s squash tournament has also been hosted by Saudi Arabia and the number of female spectators who watched this event reached three thousand. Saudi Arab is set to host its first ever Arab Fashion Week in Riyadh from March 26 to March 31. This was disclosed by Saudi Princess Noura Bint Faisal Al Saud, the honourary president of the Arab Fashion Council, while talking to journalists in London. According to a BBC commentator, this fashion show is among the series of recent attempts to bring cultural innovation in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been leading a drive to put the country on a new path of modernization away from a historically conservative society.

It is worth mentioning that in December, 2017 Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-old ban on commercial movie theaters. The kingdom has begun issuing licenses to new cinema houses and the first theaters could start showing films in this month. In September last year women were allowed to participate with men in Saudi Arabia’s National Day celebrations, which also featured street rallies, singing and dancing for the first time.

Recently, renowned Greek composer and musician Yanni also perfomed his art at King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) in Jeddah. The event also saw a mixed gathering, and women were also among those who performed during the show. Earlier, Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji also performed at the King Fahd Cultural Centre in the capital Riyadh, which was warmly welcomed by women. “This is one of the unforgettable nights that reminds me why I sing & why music is a message when it moves people & becomes their voice,” the Lebanese singer had said in one of the Tweets after the concert.

All these events divulge that a transformation is taking place in the cultural and social life of Saudi Arabia and especially the restrictions on women are slowly easing up.

Pointing to these changes, Mohammad bin Salman said that he was making efforts to ‘return’ the country to ‘moderate Islam’. Al-Arabiya TV published this statement of the crown prince. "We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas and extremist thoughts. We will destroy them now and immediately. We will end extremism very soon," he added. He said that they were not so before and that they were reverting to what they followed – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe.

Mohammed bin Salman has also announced the formation of an economic mega city in Saudi Arabia, which will be constructed in the border of Egypt and Jordanian with $500 billion.

Recent news reports say that Saudi Arabia has started to build its first opera house in the capital Riyadh. As part of its efforts to boost the entertainment industry in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia plans to invest over the next decade $64 billion. Chairman of the State-run General Entertainment Authority has said that 500 entertainment events in small towns and cities across the vast kingdom had been lined up for 2018. Performers will reportedly include US pop band Maroon 5 and the Canadian entertainment company Cirque du Soleil, the world’s largest theatrical producer.

It is to be seen how these changes are viewed by extremist and traditional religious scholars and sheiks. Even though some ulama support the approach adopted by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, but it is early to say how the conservative circles would respond to these moves. There remains possibility that people with violent and conservative religious thinking and inspired by Al-Qaeda or ISIS would organize to show some kind of reaction to the liberal attitude adopted by the Crown Prince as in the past some groups linked to Osama bin Laden had been raising their voice against the Saudi rulers. Some circles in Saudi Arabia also find the proximity between Saudi royal family and the United States as contradicting to their religious thinking. These changes are usually welcomed in Europe and America. However, the question will remain why religious scholars who are now supporting Muhammad bin Salman’s drive of modernization had been attesting to the restrictions imposed in the past, forwarding religious arguments to back up their views then.

By Saqib Akbar

US President Donald Trump earlier this month unilaterally pulled out of an international nuclear agreement that Tehran struck with major world powers led by Washington in 2015. Trump did this despite international consensus that Iran was abiding by the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Taking note of Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from this agreement, the world leaders continue to condemn this move. The EU and countries like Russia, Japan and Turkey have openly criticized America for this decision. The United States, instead of taking a review of its move, has announced to impose new sanctions on European and other companies doing business in Iran as well as on Tehran.

The new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also has served as director of the CIA, has set out 12 demands for Iran. Less seeming to be demands but more appearing to be orders of caretaker of the world, these conditions listed by Mike Pompeo sounded like declaration of war. They include provide the global inspectors with unqualified access to all nuclear sites and military centers throughout Iran, shut down its ballistic missile program, stop aiding groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah, end providing support to Iraq’s volunteer force whose role was pivotal in defeating ISIL (also known as IS, Daesh), stop cooperating with those forces who are fighting terrorists in Syria, cease its threatening behaviour against Israel, end the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps's support to those organizations who are at the forefront of fighting terror groups, cease its support to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ansarullah (Houthis) in Yemen.

In response to Mike Pompeo’s demands, Iranian President Dr. Hassan Rouhani asked who are you to decide for Iran and the world. He said all the countries of the world were free and independent and were not ready to accept the American pressure. He said the days have gone when the US was able to advance its agenda in some places through coercion and bullying.

Whatever Iran, Europe and other countries say about the American pressure, they have the right to defend and protect their sovereignty. Looking at Washington’s role at the world level, it is necessary for global peace as well as in the interests of America itself that the whole world put following 12 demands on Washington:

1. Put an end to its nuclear arsenal as it is the country that possesses most nuclear weapons in the world. Besides being the first and only country to have made use of this deadly weapon, there is more danger that America may utilize it again in future as well. The US has already threatened many countries of employing this weapon against them. It also is not ashamed nor has it shown any remorse for operating it in the past.

2. Put pressure on its ally Israel to do away with its nuclear weapons program, stop its uranium enrichment and give full account of the military dimensions of its nuclear program.

3. Compel Israel to provide the global inspectors access to its nuclear and ballistic missile sites.

4. Cease making ballistic missiles in the countries allied to it and bring this program under the obligations of missile treaty agreements.

5. Release all people abducted by it all over the world, close infamous detention centers and open these facilities to be checked by global inspectors. Also, pressurize Israel and other allies to immediately set free Palestinian and other political detainees.

6. Put an end to give support to state-sponsored terrorism and stop creating, training, launching and supporting terror groups and using them to achieve its own objectives. Stop transferring ISIL terrorists to Afghanistan and stop providing weapons, new recruitment and training to them.

7. Respect the sovereignty of nations, call a halt to its military bases and other installations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, South Korea, Japan, Germany and the world over and bring back its fleets stationed at different places across the globe. Besides, stop Israel from attacking Syria and other neighboring countries.

8. Discard its military support funds given across world, end disturbing peace of the world by selling destructive weapons, and instead of destroying nations to solve its own financial problems, launch its own excellent development projects with the participation of its own people.

9. Stop trampling the international laws and immediately rescind its decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem al-Quds, which is a blatant violation of international resolutions.

10. Put an end to cruel and coercive sanctions imposed by it on different nations of the world, desist from threatening nations and stop exploitation of nations by using FATF like tools.

11. Make an apology before the world for causing damage until now to nations by resorting to military attacks, terrorism, economic sanctions and other resources against them and compensate for the losses suffered by these affected nations, institutions and personalities as a result of the American actions.

12. Adopt new foreign policy in the light of the interests of its own people. Do not make your own people to become target of hate and abhorrence of nations of the world. Instead of protecting the interests of the cruel capitalists and becoming their mouthpiece, safeguard the interests of its own 99% deprived people and act as their ambassador. Use its resources for the development, progress, welfare and prosperity of its own people instead of spreading hatred across the world. Support the oppressed people instead of supporting the sellers of arms and weapons. Give the birth right to live independently to those states that have become tired of the wrong policies of the American Federation and want to survive as independent states.


By Saqib Akbar

The governments of Syria and Iraq recently formally announced that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), Islamic State (IS) and by its Arabic acronym Daesh, has been completely defeated in both the countries. However, operations of small nature are continuing against the remnants of this terror outfit. Commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Major General Qassem Soleimani, in a letter to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatullah Khamenei, congratulated him on the collapse of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He said that the operation to liberate Abu Kamal as the last stronghold of ISIS, and the lowering of the flag of this American-Zionist group and the hoisting of the Syrian flag there, declare the end of the domination of this cursed wicked entity and its so-called caliphate.

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By Saqib Akbar

Iraq’s electoral commission has announced the final results of the recently held country’s parliamentary elections. According to the commission, the bloc led by prominent cleric Moqtada al-Sadr emerged as the largest coalition in the 327-member parliament. It captured 54 seats in different provinces. The popularity of this bloc in the capital Baghdad is more than other groups. The Al-Fatah (Conquest) coalition led by Hadi al-Ameri came in second with 47 seats. Being the commander of Iraq’s volunteer force, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), more commonly known by its Arabic name as Hashd al-Sha’abi, al-Ameri is very popular in the country. The Nasr (Victory) coalition, headed by incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took the third place with 42 seats, and according to observers the winning percentage of this bloc is much lower than expected. It is said that due to the allegations of corruption against the members of the sitting government this alliance relatively captured less number of seats.

Moqtada al-Sadr's alliance is known by the Sa'iroun (Marchers) political bloc and the main slogan of this grouping in this election was to eliminate corruption from the country. Former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki’s State of Law came fourth with 26 seats. It is followed by Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani with 25 seats, Al-Wataniya led by former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi with 21 seats, Hikma led by famous cleric Ammar al-Hakim with 19 seats, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Kosrat Rasul with 18 seats and Al-Qarar led by Khamis Al-Khanjar with 14 seats. There are other parties whose seats are less than the above mentioned.

The interesting thing about these elections is that Moqtada al-Sadr, who heads the largest political bloc, did not contest the elections and so he cannot become prime minister. He surely will nominate someone else for the prime ministerial post. However, it will not be so easy because getting the support of more than half of the members of the parliament will be difficult for every bloc as each alliance which gives its support will definitely ask for bigger share in the government.

Moqtada al-Sadr’s bloc also consists of communist and secular groups, which shows that the election contests in Iraq are quite different from the way elections are fought here. Religious parties here can’t even imagine of forming alliances with communist and secular elements.

It also appears from these elections that it is not necessary that Moqtada al-Sadr’s bloc could form the government as the second most important coalition is not far too behind the Sa'iroun alliance. Another thing fascinating with regard to the results of these elections is that both Haider al- Abadi and Nouri Al Maliki are basically from same party. Prior to Haider al-Abadi’s government, Nouri Al Maliki was the head of the Iraqi government. Before the recent elections, Nouri al-Maliki parted ways with Haider al-Abadi and formed a new party. In case Haider al-Abadi and Nouri al-Maliki again join hands together and they get the support of Hadi al-Ameri, the formation of government will be easier for them than for any other group. By this way, seeking the support of relatively any other small group will become easy for them. On the other hand, Moqtada al-Sadr has said that he is ready to work with any group sans Haider al-Abadi’s coalition to form the government.

Another thing that can be judged from the results of these elections is that whoever forms the government, pressure on the US to pull out its forces from Iraq will increase further. Moqtada al-Sadr has been already demanding American troop withdrawal and he had also repeated this demand two or three days before the election results were announced. Hashd al-Sha’abi’s stance regarding the US troops’ presence in Iraq is not concealed from anyone. More than anyone else, they are the one who want to rid the country of American influence.

It is worth mentioning that at present there are a total of five thousand US troops in Iraq. Washington claims that it has played main role in eliminating Daesh terrorist group from Iraq. But those forces fighting the terror group on ground not only don’t accept such claims, but they are also of the view that America has tried its best to protect Daesh. There also are many who say that the Daesh is the brainchild of America.

Whatever the results of these elections, it is welcoming that Iraq is slowly moving ahead in the government formation process with the participation of the people of the country. Internally, it has, to some extent, attained stability as well. After defeating Daesh, the Iraqi army and its politicians have gained belief and confidence in themselves. Meanwhile, the allegations of corruption on those running the government are really deploring and completely unacceptable. However, the election results show that the future government will have to try hard to keep its hands clean in this regard. Failing to do so, it can have to face broader public reaction.

By Saqib Akbar

Historically, there have been ups and downs in ties between Iran and Turkey. However, in the modern history it was on 22 April 1926 that the first treaty of friendship between the two countries was signed in Tehran. The basic principles of this treaty were friendship, neutrality and non-aggression towards each other. It was also agreed that joint action would be taken against those elements involved in anti-government activities and inimical to peace and security. Both the countries had internal problems with their Kurdish minorities at that time too.

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