Sunday, May 3, 2020

A Muslim Reformation

To our credit we have been following this unfolding story for several years now. As you recall, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks we heard worldwide calls for a Reformation in the Muslim religion. 

For the past few years, that reformation has been happening. It has been led by Saudi Arabia and by its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. We have reported on a movement toward liberalization within the kingdom. And we have noted that those who oppose liberalization, beginning with the Iranian regime, have done everything in their power to diminish and demean and defame the crown prince.

Evidently, the process has not been smooth. No one imagined that it would be so. And yet, the process is advancing. The Saudi kingdom is trying to overcome decades worth of anti-Semitic propaganda by allowing a television program where Israelis and Jews are presented in a more positive light.

We recognize that this is not quite as momentous as the appearance of Gulf Arab state foreign ministers at a White House ceremony with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump. The occasion was the presentation of a new peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. The presence of the Arab ministers was followed by a mildly encouraging statement from Saudi Arabia.

Whatever you think of the speed of change, change is afoot in a world that had previously produced horrendous acts of anti-Western terrorism.

The issue now is a television show. The New York Times reports on the show and the debate surrounding it. It opens with a curious entanglement among members of different faiths:

In a mud-walled village in the Persian Gulf, a Christian woman sheds tears of love for a Muslim merchant. But he is stuck in a miserable marriage to a woman who longs for another Muslim man. But she can’t have him, because he is crazy about the local rabbi’s daughter.

These tangles of interreligious intrigue unspool in a new blockbuster television series that has set off heated debates across the Arab world about the region’s historical relationships with Jewish communities and the shifting stances of some of its current leaders toward Israel.

The show is set dozens of years ago. Times attempts to report both sides of the reaction:

Fans laud the program, set in the 1940s and 1950s, for highlighting an often overlooked aspect of the region’s past — Jewish communities in the Persian Gulf — while providing a much-needed example of coexistence among different faiths.

But critics have blasted it as a blatant effort to reshape Arab views of Israel to pave the way for formal relations, or what many in the Arab world call “normalization.”

Terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and the Palestinian Authority are horrified to discover that they have lost the support of one of their most important patrons.

Currently, they are merely puppets of the Iranian regime, so they mouth the Iranian party line on Israel. They are terrified at the prospect of what they call normalization of Arab-Israeli relations. They are horrified at the prospect of an alliance between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Increasingly, theirs is looking like a lost cause.

And they understand that such a momentous television event could not have happened without the active acquiescence of the Saudi ruling family:

But the virus’s effect on the Islamic holy month is just one aspect that will be long remembered, a prominent Palestinian journalist, Abdel Bari Atwan, wrote this week.
The other reason this Ramadan won’t soon be forgotten is because “it witnessed the largest normalization campaign, driven by the Saudi media, with help from the government, and coordinated with the Israeli occupation state,” Mr. Atwan said.

Suspicions that the historical TV drama, “Um Haroun,” or “Mother of Aaron,” is part of a state-sponsored push to sway opinions are widespread. The show airs on MBC, the Arab world’s largest private broadcaster, but one ultimately controlled by the Saudi state.

The same network is also broadcasting a comedy program that has made light of Arab attitudes toward Israel, further fueling a sense that both shows are mixing entertainment with propaganda.

Strange to see the Times calling a comedy show promoting normalization-- propaganda.

The meaning of the show’s airing is clear:

While MBC denied that including positive depictions of Jews was part of any government mandate, this year’s shows do coincide with a quiet but clear warming toward Israel among governments in the Persian Gulf.

Historically, animosity toward Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians were some of the few sentiments able to unite Arabs across the Middle East. But in recent years, wars, insurgencies and economic crises have left many Arab governments focused on domestic issues, pushing the Palestinian cause down the priority list.

At the same time, some Persian Gulf leaders have come to see Israel not as an eternal enemy, but as a potential ally against the shared threats of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

As it happens, the new attitude toward Israel, made manifest in the television show, has been consistent with public statements by Mohammed bin Salman. Little of this is ever reported, so we salute the Times for bring it to our attention:

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has spoken of overlapping trade and security interests between the kingdom and Israel, and an Israeli delegation is expected to participate in a world expo in the United Arab Emirates next year, although both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates lack formal diplomatic relations with the country.

Michael Stephens, who studies Gulf politics at the Royal United Services Institute, said the shows appeared to be part of that shift by countering a history of anti-Jewish rhetoric and showing a new openness toward the possibility of official ties with Israel.

Given the level of state control in Gulf countries, he was confident that the show’s messaging must have been officially sanctioned.

The Reformation moves forward. Happily enough, the Trump administration is supporting it, to the chagrin of Obama administration officials, who prefer an alliance with Iran.


UbuMaccabee said...

The establishment worked very hard to delegitimize this regime around the WaPo and the death of Khashoggi. I believe he was a spy and a conspirator against the current regime in Saudi Arabia, and have no regard for his bitter end—in fact, I hardly dismember it. Mohammed bin Salman appears to be taking Saudi Arabia in the right direction, but our elites seem dismayed that he is in power. A very curious position that I am sure has a great deal behind it that is not for public consumption. The Great Game plays on with a huge opportunity for the US to ally with the Gulf States plus Egypt and Israel. Now to get Turkey back on board.

Sam L. said...

"Strange to see the Times calling a comedy show promoting normalization-- propaganda."
Welllllllllllll, it IS the NYT, and the NYT KNOWS about propaganda.
Which is why I keep saying that i despise, detest, and distrust the NYT (the WaPoo, too!) I also keep saying that the Palestinians never miss a chance to miss a chance.
As kids sometimes say: "Nobody likes me; everybody hates me; I'm gonna go eat worms.(Misery HATES company.)