How Siege of Islam’s Holiest Shrine in Mecca Cast Long Shadow

The siege, Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back to back in the same year triggered a chain reaction and among other things fuelled Islamophobia, which has now escalated globally to epidemic proportions

The insurgents proved hard to dislodge as they carried advanced Belgian rifles and had planned their attack in detail.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In November 1979, self-styled preacher Juhayman al-Utaybi and his 200 followers mingled with around 50,000 worshippers at Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca before they pushed aside the imam after the dawn prayers and seized his microphone. They took out handguns and rifles hidden in coffins brought to the shrine on the pretext of funeral services while one of them, Khaled al-Yami, read a speech announcing the coming of the Mahdi, the messianic deliverer in Islamic eschatology believed to be a divinely guided man with extraordinary powers to usher in an era of justice.

Yami claimed Muslims had seen Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Qahtani, the so-called Mahdi, in their dreams and now he was in their midst. He proclaimed that the end of days was near and that redeemer would restore justice as Juhayman directed his men to close the shrine’s gates, take positions in its minarets overlooking Mecca, and shoot anyone resisting. He would first pay homage to ‘the Mahdi’. His followers followed suit amid cries of ‘God is great.’

The worshippers, many of whom were foreigners and were initially unable to understand what was going on since the intruders spoke Arabic, tried to reach any exits that were still open, prompting the gunmen to fire a few gunshots. The bloodshed that followed was unprecedented as any violence is forbidden in Mecca as per the Quranic mandate. 

Juhyman and his men blatantly violated the mandate and fully controlled the shrine in about an hour and challenged the authority of the Saudi royal family whom they blamed for the degeneration of social and religious values through a modernization drive. He had earlier gone underground when authorities cracked down his ultra-conservative al-Jamaa al-Salafiya al-Muhtasiba group and wrote pamphlets criticising the royals for their ‘decadence’ and the clerics for colluding with them.

Juhyman believed Saudi Arabia needed a ‘heavenly intervention’ for salvation when he began preaching despite being poorly educated. He was involved in drug smuggling before repenting to find solace in religion but avoided addressing educated audiences as his classical Arabic, the language of Islamic scholars, was weak. 

Juhayman’s experience as a soldier in the Saudi National Guard, though, helped him organise the shrine’s takeover after identifying Qahtani as ‘the Mahdi’ as his attributes matched that of the messianic deliverer. It is believed that Mahdi’s first and father’s names will be similar to the prophet’s and will have a large forehead and a thin nose like an eagle. For Juhayman, Qahtani matched these attributes. But Qahtani was unconvinced initially and went into isolation before he was convinced that Juhayman was right and he was the ‘saviour’. 

In the run-up to the siege, rumours spread that Meccans and pilgrims saw Qahtani in their dreams in Mecca’s Grand Mosque holding Islam’s banner. The rumours coincided with Juhayman’s preparations in remote areas of Saudi Arabia for the takeover. 

The Saudi leadership found itself hamstrung as its key members were abroad. Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was in Tunisia and Prince Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, in Morocco. An ailing King Khaled and his defence minister Prince Sultan, who were left to coordinate the immediate response, failed to anticipate the scale of the problem and sent Saudi police to understand the scale of the crisis. The police proved no match to the rebels. Their cars were fired upon as they drove up to the shrine, prompting the National Guard to launch a hasty operation as the gravity of the situation became evident. 

The National Guard, too, found the insurgents hard to dislodge. Juhayman’s sharp-shooters carried advanced Belgian rifles and had planned their attack in detail forcing Saudi authorities to press paratroopers, special forces, and armoured units into service. A security cordon was thrown around the shrine and artillery fire was directed towards its minarets while jets and helicopters hovered in the air. 

The rebels repelled the attacks despite getting outgunned and outnumbered over the next two days while the Saudi forces tried to gain entrance into the Grand Mosque, a two-floor building mostly of galleries and corridors spread across hundreds of meters. Casualties mounted to the hundreds as a result.

The insurgents set fire to carpets to create clouds of smoke before they hid behind columns and ambushed Saudi troops. A man-to-man confrontation followed within a cramped space. The problems were compounded when some Saudi soldiers refused to fight, citing the shrine’s sanctity and prompted authorities to seek a fatwa backing the military to use as much force. The fatwa paved the way for anti-tank-guided missiles and heavy guns to take out the rebels stationed on the minarets. Armoured personnel carriers were separately rushed to breach the gates.

Qahtani, meanwhile, thought he could expose himself but soon found his immortality was a fallacy as bullets hit him. Juhayman remained in denial telling his followers not to believe those who said Qahtani was injured. They continued fighting until Saudi forces took control of the mosque’s courtyard and the surrounding buildings on the sixth day.

But the crisis was far from over as the rebels retreated to rooms and cells at the shrine convinced Qahtani was alive. The situation worsened with the rebels pushing into the catacombs and forced the Saudis to seek the help of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who dispatched three advisers from a counter-terror unit secretly. The French team stayed at a hotel in the nearby Taif and devised a plan of flushing out the insurgents by filling the shrine’s basements with gas. Holes were accordingly dug every 50 metres to inject gas through them with the help of grenade explosions into the corner where the insurgents were holed up down in the basement.

The plan succeeded. Juhayman and his surviving followers also ran out of ammunition and food and gathered in a small room with soldiers throwing smoke bombs through a hole made in the ceiling. They were soon forced to surrender but Juhayman was unrepentant when he met Saudi officials and just asked for water. Juhayman and 63 rebels were executed across eight cities over a month later but the siege cast a long shadow.

The crisis had a profound effect on Osama Bin Laden, who blamed the Saudi ruling family for desecrating the shrine. Laden felt the crisis, which has been described as the first such transnational terrorist operation as the rebels included men from Middle Eastern countries and the US, could have been solved peacefully. The response to the siege prompted him to organise al-Qaida to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and to end western influences in the region.

The siege also strengthened the clergy and halted Saudi Arabia’s modernization. It pushed the royals on an ultra-conservative path marked by measures such as the ban on women from driving and the closure of theatres, which took four decades to reverse. The Saudi government increased the allocation for the religious establishment in oil revenues among other concessions to deal with the aftermath of the crisis. This allowed the clergy to develop a network of charities and educational institutes globally to spread its ultra-conservative ideology.

An information blackout thanks to the snapping of phone lines for the first 24 hours created much confusion. The US pointed fingers at Iran, which blamed the Americans and the Zionists and sparked anti-American demonstrations across the world. American embassies were stormed but the siege largely remained obscured. The attention remained focused on Iran, where the American embassy was overrun after the revolution two weeks earlier, and Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion a fortnight later. 

The three back-to-back events triggered a chain reaction and among other things fuelled Islamophobia, which has now escalated globally to epidemic proportions.     

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

How Manhunt Stretched Out Over Generation Ended With Zawahri’s Killing

Two Hellfire missiles with long blades meant to kill targets with kinetic energy to minimize collateral damage were fired on July 30 to take out al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri

When two Hellfire missiles killed al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri on a balcony of a house he was hiding out in downtown Kabul on July 30, it culminated months-long operation that began earlier this year. Zawahiri was in hiding for years and the operation to locate and kill him required carefully patient and persistent work. American intelligence agencies spent months determining al-Zawahri’s identity after tracking him down to the safe house following protracted intelligence collection.   

Before killing him, intelligence officials used different methods and sources to build what is known as the pattern of life confirming Zawahri’s presence in the Kabul house like in the case of his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, before he was killed in a commando raid in 2011 in Pakistan’s Abbottabad. Zawahri was watched for extended periods on the balcony within Kabul’s diplomatic quarters, which housed Western embassies until the Taliban’s return to power last year.

The operation was launched after American intelligence sources were tipped off about the relocation of Zawahri’s wife, daughter, and grandchildren to the house earlier this year. It would take more time for American intelligence agencies to conclude that Zawahri was there as well to begin executing it by firing Hellfire missiles with long blades meant to kill targets with kinetic energy to minimize collateral damage.

American President Joe Biden’s deputy national security adviser, Jonathan Fine, and homeland security adviser, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, were first briefed on the intelligence about Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul in April. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, was put in the picture later and he eventually briefed the president.

Top officials, including CIA chief William J Burns, on July 1 discussed the operation with Biden. They showed Biden a model of the house Zawahri was hiding in. Biden was briefed about factors that could influence the success of the operation including weather, construction materials as well as the risk to civilians.

The operation concluded as per the plan as the missiles killed Zawahri without harming anyone else. A botched drone strike killed 10 civilians in Kabul as the US was carrying out evacuations from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s return to power last August. The US acknowledged the error only after The New York Times reported about it and the American administration has since been cautious in ensuring civilian casualties were prevented in such strikes. It has been in talks about repositioning American forces in neighbouring Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan for striking high-value targets in Afghanistan as part of an over-the-horizon strategy. It still has the capability to launch manned and unnamed attacks within Afghanistan from bases in the Indian Ocean, along the Persian Gulf, and the US even without repositioning its troops.

The Americans were aware of a network that supported Zawahiri for years and they began watching for indications of al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan over the past year following the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The construction and nature of Zawahiri’s safe house were scrutinized along with its occupants to ensure the operation could be conducted to kill the al-Qaida chief without threatening the building and minimizing the risk to civilians.

Biden held a series of meetings to scrutinize the intelligence and evaluate the best course of action. He examined the model of the safe house and sought analysis of the potential ramifications of Zawahiri’s killing. Inter-agency lawyers examined the intelligence and confirmed Zawahiri was a legitimate target as he led al-Qaida. On July 25, Biden received a final briefing and discussed how Zawahiri’s killing would affect America’s relationship with the Taliban, etc before authorising “a precisely tailored air strike” on the condition that the risk of civilian casualties is minimized.

Zawahri, a key plotter of the 9/11 attacks, took over as al-Qaida’s chief after bin Laden’s death. His killing ended a 21-year manhunt that stretched out over a generation a year after Biden withdrew American forces from Afghanistan to pave the way for the Taliban’s return to power. It was the first such successful strike since the withdrawal without American forces on the ground. Biden has maintained the US can continue waging war against terrorists without major deployments of ground forces unlike in the first two decades after the 9/11 attacks even as Zawahiri was sheltered in Afghanistan in violation of the Taliban’s commitment against providing al-Qaida a safe haven.

Zawahri’s presence in Afghanistan prompted criticism that American withdrawal from Afghanistan endangered the US. But the proponents of the withdrawal maintained the successful operation to take out Zawahari vindicated the pullout and over the horizon worked by protecting American interests without a large and expensive military presence in Afghanistan.

What Reframing Of History Tells Us About Fast-Changing Saudi Arabia

Saudi ruling family’s ties with revivalist theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab conferred legitimacy on its rule but they are increasingly being underplayed with an acceleration of change in Saudi Arabia

Diriyah has hosted American rapper-singer Pitbull and Swedish House Mafia’s concerts. Reuters

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When a restored 18th-century palace will be opened to the public for the first time later this year in Diriyah, it is expected to be among the major attractions in Saudi Arabia as it opens up to the world. The monument near the Saudi capital Riyadh is a key landmark in the country’s history. The ruling al Saud family signed its pivotal pact with revivalist theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who advocated a narrow and literal interpretation of the Quran, at the mud and straw palace in 1744. 

The pact would have the Sauds take charge of politics and military and Salafi clerics, pejoratively known as Wahhabis, monopolise legal, religious, and social affairs. It helped Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, to establish a viable state by the early 20th century after the family’s attempts to do so were frustrated twice. Aziz declared himself king in 1932 six years before oil was discovered and helped transform the kingdom with two of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, into one of the world’s richest nations. 

Al Saud’s ties with Wahhab conferred legitimacy on his family’s rule. But they are increasingly being underplayed with an acceleration of change in Saudi Arabia since its de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, was elevated as the Crown Prince in 2017. MBS has championed modernisation. His calls for a more moderate Islam, an end to ban on women from driving, sidelining of religious authorities, reopening of cinemas, etc have been seen as part of efforts to undermine the al Saud’s pact with the religious establishment. There is more in-your-face evidence of this in Diriyah, where the place Wahhab lived opposite the palace has been transformed into a dining district. 

In a report in June, the news agency AFP noted a restored version of Wahhab’s mosque is open on the site but a research centre, built about seven years ago and devoted to his branch of Islam, Salafism, is not. The agency cited analysts and said they say the palace’s opening is part of MBS’s larger effort of stoking Saudi nationalism and reframing its history. It noted exhibits dotting the palace spotlight the al Saud family’s achievements with no mention of its partnership with Wahhab. 

For Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Diriyah encapsulates the new Saudi nationalism, putting the al Sauds as the primary authors of Saudi history and architects of its unity while erasing Wahhab from the national narrative. She told AFP that MBS’s father King Salman preserved a place, albeit reduced, to commemorate Wahhab when he first showed interest in redeveloping Diriyah in the 1970s. Diwan added MBS sees Diriyah, which also now features attractions such as fine dining, art galleries, and a Formula-E race track in line with his vision, as a global attraction. Wahhabism does not easily co-exist in MBS’s programme of art biennales, world wrestling, and raves, said Diwan.

American entertainment executive Jerry Inzerillo, who has been hired to transform Diriyah, told AFP that MBS approves every rendering of Diriyah and spent up to 30 hours painstakingly reviewing its street layout. For Inzerillo, Diriyah could be for Saudis what the Acropolis is for Greeks and the Colosseum is for Italians even as he dismissed the idea that Wahhab is being written out of history. Yet music, which Wahhab’s teachings saw as an abomination, has made a strong comeback in Saudi Arabia as well as his backyard—Diriyah, which has hosted American rapper-singer Pitbull and Swedish House Mafia’s concerts.

Heritage and entertainment are key elements to the transformation of Saudi Arabia and Diriyah, where music virtually disappeared 300 years back with Wahhab’s rise, as part of efforts to revamp the Saudi economy. Limiting the clerical power over the affairs of the state has emerged as an important aspect of the transformative change. In 2017, MBS told global investors that they were returning to being a country of moderate Islam open to all religions and to the world. 

Saudi Arabia has been promoting entertainment and leisure as part of a drive to create jobs and end the country’s dependence on oil. In 2016, it created a new General Entertainment Authority (GEA), which aims to double household spending on entertainment to 6% percent by 2030. Music was not always taboo in Saudi Arabia, where summer festivals in cities such as Jeddah featured concerts before public musical education was confined to military academies for training bands for official marches. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

How Prophet Muhammad Was Ahead Of His Time

Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s teachings, which first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in seventh-century Arabia with entrenched notions of superiority

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Shortly before he passed away, Prophet Muhammad spelled his moral and ethical mandate for Muslims in his last sermon. He essentially reiterated his vision that was pivotal to his successes against possibly all odds. The Prophet declared all humans descended from Adam and Eve and there is no superiority ‘of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, a white person over a black person, or of a black person over a white person.’ He called for treating others justly to ensure that no one would be unjust to his followers. ‘You will neither inflict nor suffer inequity […] you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. […] Treat women well and be kind to them […]’

Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s last address and his life-long egalitarian teachings, which first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in seventh-century Arabia with entrenched notions of superiority. He challenged inequalities based on kinship, tribal affiliation, wealth, and triggered ferocious opposition from the elites such as Umayya, whose slave Bilal, an African, was among Islam’s first converts and prominent members of the budding Muslim community. Umayya tortured Bilal, who was known for his euphonious voice, to force him to renounce Islam. He would place a rock on Bilal’s chest to have him fall in line. Bilal, who was known to be close to the Prophet, refused to give in. He would go on to have the distinction of giving the first public call for prayers or azan to Muslims and marrying a woman from an important Arab clan.

Bilal’s social mobility illustrated how the Prophet transformed Arabia with social justice at the core of the transformative change he effected. He created a society, which took care of its weak and treated them with respect, uprooting an oppressive power and social structure that accorded an individual low or high social status as per nasab (kinship or lineal descent). The change did not come without trials and tribulations. The Prophet’s own turned against him. The persecution he faced forced his flight to Medina. He suffered assassination attempts and wars by much stronger adversaries. But he struck a balance between idealism and pragmatism, which helped him win him over even his worst enemies. He ended a cycle of reprisals and constant warfare and ushered in unity, order, peace, and justice. The Prophet united warring tribes and gave them a sense of community to eventually have them welcome him back to the city of his birth—Mecca.

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The Prophet, who founded the first Muslim state of Medina, was way ahead of his time. The Medina Charter, which many consider the constitution of this state, best illustrated this. The charter outlined the political rights and duties of the state’s inhabitants. Medina, one of Islam’s holiest places as the Prophet’s final resting place where the first Muslim community was established, was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the charter. The charter sought to end conflicts among tribes and maintain peace among all its inhabitants – Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans.

The charter declared no Jews will be wronged and will be treated as one community with the believers. It sought to protect the religious rights of non-Muslims and was known as Sahifah Medina or Dustur Medina in Arabic. It was perhaps the first such written document incorporating religious and political rights. The charter specified means for conflict resolution and sought to promote mutual respect and acceptance. It underscored Muslim commitment to human lives and religious minorities in line with Quran’s mandate for Muslims to respect all previous messengers such as Jesus and Moses and to honour their followers. It recognised equality and the right to peaceful coexistence with all groups getting protection and rights to live as per their beliefs.

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The Charter had its roots in infighting, which the Prophet ended by unifying communities. Muslim scholars have sought to revive its spirit to end the political violence in the name of religion, particularly since the 1980s in the name of fighting communism, which boomeranged and sparked a virulent form of Islamophobia. In January 2016, they put their heads together at a conference in Morocco reaffirming the values enshrined in the charter. Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who hosted the gathering, underlined the charter promoted unity, pluralism, and religious freedom. He sought the revival of its spirit for a more peaceful and inclusive world.

The Prophet also signed a charter of privileges with Christians in 628 and pledged them freedom of worship, movement, and protection in the event of war years after Ethiopia’s Christian kingdom offered asylum to some early Muslims when they faced persecution in Mecca. The Prophet allowed Christians from Najran in modern-day Saudi Arabia to worship in his mosque when he ruled Medina. The treaty he signed with the Christians pledged ‘there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith. […] No bishop will be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his parish.’  The treaty reflected the Quranic spirit. The Quran says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ It calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times and also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book), ahl al-dhikr (the people of remembrance). The Quran also addresses the Christians as ahl al-Injīl (the People of the Gospel). The Quran mentions the Jewish holy book Torah 18 times as a true revelation and source of guidance and wisdom.

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The four Khulafa Rashidun (rightly-guided) caliphs Abu Bakar, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, the Prophet’s close companions, succeeded him and laid the foundation of Islam’s Golden Age, which produced icons such as polymath Ibn Isa, known in the West as Avicenna. The period between the eighth to eleventh century marked the high point of this age marked by great strides in science and learning. For Islamic science expert Glen M Cooper, this era profoundly affected the development of empirical science. Cooper has argued the West ultimately became the heir of those scientific developments. For him, contributions of Muslim scientists to medicine and the flourishing of science during the Golden Age of Islamic civilisation can be explained, in part, by basic Islamic religious beliefs and practices. British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili wrote scholars and scientists of the Islamic Golden Age are no less worthy of mention in the history of science than Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, or Einstein. Among them, Ibn al-Haytham was the greatest physicist in the 2,000-year period that separated Archimedes and Newton. Polymath Al-Bīrūni is regarded as the Da Vinci of Islam. Mathematician and astronomer Al-Tūsi influenced Copernicus while Ibn Khaldūn is known as the father of social science and economic theory.

The golden age was the most remarkable period of scholarship and learning since Ancient Greece when the Islamic Civilisation spread across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Muslims produced rich literature, thought, and contributed to science. The quest for knowledge was among the primary goals of the Muslim rulers when Christian Europe followed outmoded teachings and Arabs mastered science. In an essay titled Questions on Natural Science Englishman Adelard of Bath, who left behind his traditional education at the cathedral schools of France and travelled to Antioch (Turkey) in the 12th century, cited the blind adherence of Europeans to intellectual orthodoxy. He wrote that Arabic science has freed man to explore the natural world with his own faculties and reason as a guide.

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Medicine became a part of Islamic culture that espoused sound health. ‘Make use of medical treatment, for Allah has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease: old age,’ the Prophet advised his followers. Muslims over the centuries drew on traditional practices to make their medicine the world’s most sophisticated by the 10th century. The Islamic culture fostered a tradition of book-making that transmitted knowledge from one place to another when Europeans languished in the intellectual darkness. Crusades were a manifestation of this darkness for which distortions about the Prophet were used as a justification in an attempt to eliminate Islam and Islamic Civilisation.

The misrepresentations persisted even as Europe overcame its inferiority to the much intellectually advanced Islamic world to dominate the world. They gained a fresh currency in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The incendiary comments of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have put a spotlight on these distortions. They echo medieval crusade chroniclers’ distortions in a futile attempt to overshadow an extraordinary legacy, which could be the panacea for many of the contemporary problems provided Muslims, in particular, understand its essence—justice and equality.  

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Furore over remarks against Prophet marks shift in Arab perception of India

The sweeping tendency to see Muslims as a historical adversary, and the promotion of black and white history to suit this narrative has overshadowed India’s centuries-old mutually enriching ties with the Arab world

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

The high point of Islamic civilization between the eighth and the eleventh century coincided with Baghdad’s centrality to global trade, knowledge, science, and scholarship. It drew people from around the world to the city and by the ninth century, Baghdad had Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Armenian quarters apart from Jewish and Christian suburbs. The diversity also led to an exchange of knowledge that facilitated the development of some of the pivotal scientific ideas. A text that a merchant from India brought to Baghdad in the eighth century first introduced nine numerals and zero and changed the face of mathematics. It made multiplication and division simpler as well as helped develop the decimal system and calculus, which is vital to almost all branches of science and underpins important discoveries in physics.

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Scholars such as polymath al-Khwarizmi, whom algorithms are named after, built on these ideas to create what has been described as “the Arabic hegemony” in mathematics. The Arabs helped the new system of numerals, which Europeans called Arab numerals, to reach Renaissance Europe even as Arabs continue to correctly call them Hindsa (the Indian numerals). The Arab world’s age-old links with India have enabled such mutually-enriching exchanges for centuries and have had Arabs hold Indians in high esteem. Over the recent decades,  Arabs have associated India with Gandhian ideals of religious coexistence. 

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The furor over the derogatory comments ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionaries made about the Prophet Muhammad underlines a shift in how the Arabs have perceived India. The Arabs appear to have finally begun to grasp the radical changes India has undergone since BJP emerged as a hegemon in Indian politics. The comments were a new low in what has been a staple of India’s Islamophobic political and media discourse over the last eight years. They marked a tipping point for Arab countries, where people have been trying to wrap their heads around the situation in India.

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The increasing weaponization of history in India through its narrow interpretation has blurred lines between myths and reality. The sweeping tendency to see Muslims as the monolithic other; a historical adversary and the promotion of black and white history to suit this narrative has overshadowed India’s collaborative and mutually enriching ties with the Arab world. Thanks to the collaborative ties, Panchatantra, one of India’s most significant contributions to global literature, found its way to the rest of the world through its Arabic translation. Kalila wa Dimna, an anthology of Indian fables, has been among the most popular books in the Arab world for over a millennium. Ibn Mukaffa compiled the book in the eighth century from the fables sourced from Panchatantra to engaging philosophers in the wisdom of its tales.

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Alf Laylah wa Laylah (The Arabian Nights/One Thousand and One Nights), which has for centuries influenced storytelling and inspired generations of writers and is known as the Arab world’s biggest contribution to literature, may also have an Indian link. Novelist Salman Rushdie has argued the iconic book’s probable origin is Indian. In a New York Times piece in May 2021, Rushdie wrote Indian story compendiums too have a fondness for frame stories, for Russian doll-style stories within stories, and animal fables. He added somewhere around the eighth century, these stories first found their way into Persian. Rushdie cited surviving scraps of information and wrote the collection was known as Hazar Afsaneh (a thousand stories). Rushdie referred to a 10th-century document from Baghdad and added it describes the Hazar Afsaneh and mentions its frame story about a king who would kill a concubine every night until one of them manages to delay her execution by telling him stories. 

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The Arabs began acquiring Sanskrit texts before they sourced nearly all of the Graeco-Roman philosophical and scientific works to usher in the Islamic Golden Age. In 771, an Indian delegation visited Baghdad carrying a library. The brilliance of its texts is believed to have prompted the commissioning of their translations into Arabic. Indian mysticism was among the subjects the Abbasids, who helmed the Golden Age from the eighth century onwards, tapped into. 

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A courtyard at the tomb of a Sufi saint in Baghdad signifies Indo-Arab links in the spiritual realm. It commemorates Sikhism founder Guru Nanak’s stay there during his 16th-century journey through Arabia for inter-religious dialogue. Nanak, who is believed to have gained deep insights into Islam thanks to the journey, founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion drawing from Islam as a synthesis between two of India’s major faiths.

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In Kerala, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, believed to be the oldest mosque in the southern Indian state, also attests to deep India-Arabia links. Linked to mythical ruler Cheraman Perumal, who, the story goes, saw the moon splitting into two either in his dream or from his palace. Arab traders are believed to have told him how the miracle was associated with the Prophet. This is said to have prompted Perumal to travel to meet the Prophet in Mecca, where he is believed to have died as a Muslim. A friend of Preumalis is said to have later built the Cheraman Juma Masjid in the seventh century. 

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The 8.9 million strong Indian expatriate community in the Arab world represents the continuing symbiotic relationship. The remittances they send have often surpassed India’s other sources of capital inflows. The remittances constituted 2.7 percent of the country’s GDP in 2017 and double the spending (1.15% GDP)on healthcare. Over $30 billion from the region accounted for nearly half of the total remittances of $69 billion India got in 2017. Remittances of over $10.5 billion in 2017 from Saudi Arabia, where almost a quarter of 17 million Indians around the world lived, was the most significant contribution to the flow of capital from a single country.

Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Babylon Brigade: Christian Militia That Fought ISIS On Muslim Cleric’s Call

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistanis fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 91-year-old head of Iraq’s clerical establishment Hawza, is known to be reclusive. He mainly issues messages through his representatives and rarely appears in the public, on the television, or receives visitors. Sistani, however, made an exception when he hosted Pope Francis at his modest home on Najaf’s Rasool Street. Sistani stood outside his austere meeting room to greet the pope when Francis walked a few hundred meters to meet the ayatollah for the 40-minute meeting in March 2021. Francis, the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, took off his shoes before white doves symbolizing peace were released when the pontiff entered the doorway. He cradled Sistani’s hands during the meeting as the two discussed ways of stopping violence in the name of religion.

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Sistani told Francis that Iraq’s Christians deserve to ‘live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights’ as Francis thanked the ayatollah for raising ‘his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted.’ The meeting came amid increasing acknowledgment of Sistani’s role in unifying Iraq, which helped it defeat the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the terrorist group masquerading as Caliphate, in July 2017.

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Sistani’s fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS. It encouraged thousands of volunteers to sign up for Popular Mobilization Forces better known by its Arabic acronym Hashd to fight the group. ISIS controlled a bigger territory than Austria and 40% of Iraq and a third of Syria at its peak when the Iraqi state almost collapsed when its American-trained forces fled Mosul in June 2014 and allowed the terrorist group to overrun the city.

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Francis’s visit would not have been possible without the bridge-building Sistani played a key role in and helped unify the country to take on ISIS effectively. ISIS’s brutality triggered a sense of urgency that helped Iraqis rise above regional, ethnic and sectarian divides to help defeat it. Rayan al-Kildani’s Christian Babylon Brigade militia was among those who fought ISIS under the Hashd umbrella. A resident of a predominantly Christian village in a mountain range with crosses even taller than lampposts every 100m near Mosul, Kildani described to BBC in 2016 how they fought side by side with the Muslim militias. Kildani added they have really good defense forces now and no one is ‘going to do anything bad to the Christians’ and that their suffering is over.

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Francis echoed Kildani when the pontiff visited Mosul as the Iraqi government rolled out a red carpet for him. Children in festive dresses lined the streets and waved Iraqi flags to welcome Francis as he arrived at Mosul’s Hosh al-Bieaa Church Square years after the city was virtually reduced to rubble in the fighting against ISIS. He said Christians received assistance from Muslims when they returned to the town. Francis underlined the need for reaffirming their conviction ‘that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.’ His audience held olive branches as Francis led prayers in Mosul.

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The pontiff led the first prayers at the renovated Church of the Holy Immaculate Conception, which was damaged during the war, in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, where Christians trace their roots back to almost as far as Jesus’s lifetime. He visited Mosul as a pilgrim for peace and said terrorism and death never have the last word. The pope said even amid the ravages of terrorism, they can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death. He referred to Iraq’s history of pluralism and hoped its legacy would be ensured. Francis called religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity ‘a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia.’ He said it is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated.

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A cross made from wooden chairs from churches across the region was also erected in Mosul’s Church Square in the honour of Francis, who visited Erbil in northern Iraq to express his gratitude to the local community for offering refuge to Christians during the war on ISIS.

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Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier welcomed Francis when he arrived in Baghdad. A choir was also arranged for the pope when he entered the airport. Crowds waved Iraqi and Vatican flags as Francis left for a welcome at the presidential palace. Traffic circles en route were decorated with the Vatican’s yellow and white flags. At the presidential reception, the pope spoke about Iraq’s diversity, which he said is to be treasured. He addressed leaders of several denominations at the cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad and held a mass at the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph.

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The papal visit was a major boost to inter-faith harmony in Iraq as it emerges from terrorism, dictatorship, occupation, and the civil war. As the New York Times rightly emphasized: ‘[…] in some ways [Sistani is] an ideal interlocutor for Francis: holy, credible and powerful. His decisions carry weight.’ Theirs was a meeting of the minds. It was a step towards realizing unity among the world’s major faiths. The pope made a case for it at a multi-faith gathering he addressed during the same trip in Iraq’s Ur, which is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews trace their roots to. Francis quoted a passage in the Bible in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his offspring will be. He emphasized Abraham saw the promise of his progeny in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis said, referring to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The pope urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity while underlining they illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

More Unites Than Divides Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity, Judaism

Ur in Iraq is among myriad examples of how Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which trace their roots to and revere Abraham, are intertwined

Pope Francis listens as Mufti Rahmi Yaran reads verses from the Quran at the Blue Mosque in Turkey in November 2014. Getty Images

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

At a March 2021 multi-faith gathering in Iraq, Pope Francis quoted a passage from Genesis, the Bible’s first book, in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his progeny will be. For Francis, Abraham saw the promise of his descendants—Muslims, Christians, and Jews—in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis told the gathering in Ur, which is believed to be Abraham’s birthplace. The pontiff urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity. They, the Pontiff underlined, illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together as he appealed for unity. The Pope called Ur ‘the land of our father Abraham’ where faith was born. ‘[…] from [Ur], let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters.’ He called hostility, extremism, and violence betrayals of religion, which are not born of a religious heart.

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The Pope’s call for unity was in consonance with shared traditions of the world’s three major religions, which have more that unites rather than what divides them. Ur is among myriad examples of how Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which trace their roots to and revere Abraham, are intertwined. It is in Ur that their spiritual forefather, Abraham, whose followers account for over 50 per cent of the world’s population, is believed to have first heard the voice of God. Ur is mentioned in the Quran and Christian scriptures as Abraham’s homeland, which he is believed to have left on God’s command to found a new nation in Canaan spanning Palestine and Syria to become the founder of monotheism. God is believed to have promised Abraham that his ‘seed’—Jews, Muslims and Christians—would inherit the land. The Prophet Muhammad traced his lineage to Abraham’s first son Ishmael. Jews and Jesus are believed to be the descenders of Abraham’s younger son, Isaac.

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Around 300 km from Abraham’s birthplace, biblical prophet Ezekiel’s tomb in Kifl with Hebrew carvings is another example of shared veneration for Abrahamic religious figures. Ezekiel is known as Dhul Kifl in the Islamic tradition and Kilf, which is located at the centre of routes to Muslim pilgrimage cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Mecca, gets its name from that. A synagogue and a mosque surround the tomb of Ezekiel, who preached in modern-day Iraq in the sixth century BC and is believed to have seen God’s visions there. Mentioned twice in the Quran, both Muslims and Jews revere him. In July 2016, Kilf was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site years after the restoration work centred on Ezekiel’s tomb began in 2009. The outer courtyard of the shrine has a mosque and the inner sanctum retains the Hebrew markings to protect its Jewish heritage.

In 2010, the tomb’s Muslim caretaker, Sheik Aqil, told journalist Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times that they take care of both the Islamic and the Jewish sections of the shrine as they are both part of Iraq’s history. ‘It’s a Muslim’s duty to protect it,’ Aqil told Myers. In 2019, writer Alex Shams wrote Ezekiel’s Tomb ‘is one of those rare, beautiful places where Arabic and Hebrew flow freely into each other.’ The Arabic calligraphy on Ezekiel’s tomb wishes peace upon him. Shams wrote the shared veneration for Abrahamic religious figures is common across the region, citing examples of Daniel’s tomb in Shush and Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan (Iran). The reverence is rooted in Muslim beliefs perhaps best reflected in the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi’s poem which likened Adam’s children to valuable limbs of one body:

When the world gives pain to one member, the other members find no rest. Thou who are indifferent to the sufferings of others does not deserve to be called a man. 

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Muslims have considered Jews and Christians as allies since the days of the Prophet. When Muslims faced persecution in Mecca, the Ethiopian Christian kingdom offered asylum to them. Christians from Najran (modern-day Saudi Arabia) were allowed worship in his mosque when the Prophet ruled Medina. The Prophet signed the Charter in Mount Sinai in 628 pledging the freedom of worship, movement, and protection during war for Christians. The prophet promised ‘there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith. … No bishop will be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his parish.’ This was in line with the Quranic mandate, which says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ The Quran, which calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times, also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book), ahl al-dhikr (the people of remembrance). The Quran also addresses the Christians as ahl al-Injīl (the People of the Gospel), and mentions the Jewish holy book Torah 18 times as a true revelation and source of guidance and wisdom.

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Medina Charter, which was adopted when the Prophet Muhammad founded the first Muslim state in the seventh century and is considered its constitution, sought to end conflicts and maintain peace among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans. It underlined ‘a believer will not kill another believer for the sake of an un-believer.’ The charter outlined the political rights and duties of all inhabitants of Medina, which is also the Prophet’s final resting place, irrespective of their faith. Medina was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the charter.

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The charter, which is perhaps the first such document to have incorporated religious and political rights, provided for means for conflict resolution by promoting mutual respect, tolerance, and pluralism. Based on the commitment to human lives and religious minorities, it drew inspiration from the Quran, which mandates Muslims to respect all previous messengers, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and to honour their followers. The charter, which said ‘no Jews will be wronged for being an unbeliever,’ recognised equality to all residents, their rights to peaceful coexistence. It gave all tribal, religious and ethnic groups protection and the right to live as per their beliefs. The charter’s Article 30 said ‘the Jews will be treated as one community with the believers.’

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When Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem in 637, he offered security for Christian possessions, churches, and crosses as the commander of the faithful. He declared the churches ‘shall not be taken for residence and shall not be demolished … nor shall their crosses be removed.’ Umar declined Jerusalem patriarch Sophronius’s invitation to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher saying he did not want Muslims to use this as an excuse later to lay claims over the holiest Christian shrine. 

It has, however, been a slippery slope since the Crusades sought to eradicate Islam in the name of religion. But there have been attempts to revive the spirit of the Medina Charter to end the violence for political ends in the name of religion, which has created havoc since the West brazenly used it in the 1980s to defeat the USSR. In January 2016, Muslim scholars put their heads together at a conference in Morocco and reaffirmed the values of the charter. Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who hosted the gathering, recalled the charter affirmed unity by promoting pluralism and religious freedom while seeking the revival of its spirit for a peaceful and inclusive world. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Regime Changes In Iran, Iraq Hurt American Interests In Longer Run

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s allegations that the US backed an attempt to oust him have put a spotlight on Washington’s involvements in regime changes

Mohammed Mossadegh has been described as the region’s ‘first liberal leader’ and a rationalist. Picture courtesy independent.co.uk

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

London-based Anglo-Iranian Petroleum Company (AIPC) had a monopoly over Iran’s oil until Mohammed Mossadegh kept his poll promise and nationalised the firm to invest its profits for the welfare of the poor after sweeping to power in 1951. Britain reacted with fury. It imposed economic sanctions and a naval embargo besides forcing British technicians to leave Iran. The retaliatory measures paralysed the Iranian petroleum industry and blocked its exports as Britain claimed the Iranian oil to be its property. An attempt to overthrow French-educated Mosaddegh was pre-empted by shutting the British embassy and deporting British undercover agents plotting a coup posing as diplomats.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s move to end the American non-interventionist policy in 1952 in view of the Iranian leader’s defiance sealed Mossadegh’s fate. Eisenhower saw Mossadegh’s nationalisation project as a threat to multinational enterprises. Kermit Roosevelt, an agent of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was accordingly rushed to Tehran. He would accomplish the job of overthrowing Mossadegh in three weeks in August 1953. Mossadegh, a democratically-elected leader, was banished and would spend the rest of his life under house arrest in his native village.

Seven decades on, former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan effectively used an alleged US-backed attempt to oust him to stall a non-confidence motion against him this month. The move helped him recommend the dissolution of the national assembly and call fresh elections to prevent his opponents from taking power to roll back provisions such as the use of electronic voting machines and online balloting rights to overseas Pakistanis, who are mostly seen as Khan’s supporters.

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Khan has called the alleged move to oust him a blatant American interference in domestic politics even as Washington has denied any role in seeking to remove Khan from power. Allegations of American interference have been repeatedly made in Pakistan, where Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed on trumped-up charges after secretary of state Henry Kissinger is said to have warned the US would make a ‘horrible example’ of the Pakistani leader over his refusal to give up Pakistan’s nuclear programme in 1976. The execution followed a military coup and a campaign to remove Bhutto from power as Khan has faced in recent months. Khan has cited a series of meetings of opposition leaders with American diplomats to back his allegations.

Khan’s accusations of American attempt to oust him have resonated in the backdrop of the US-backed regime changes including in neighbouring Iran, where AIPC was Britain’s most profitable company in the 1950s. AIPC managed the monopoly over Iranian oil through a deal with Iran’s monarchy. The oil propelled high living standards in Britain while Iranians lived in poverty despite the abundance of black gold in their country. American author-journalist Stephen Kinzer told Democracy Now in 2008 that Britain had no oil or colonies with petroleum and every factory in England, car, truck, taxi was running on oil from Iran. He added oil from Iran 100% fuelled the Royal Navy as it projected British power globally and that AIPC ‘would not give in one inch.’

Mossadegh, who has been described as the region’s ‘first liberal leader’ and a rationalist who hated obscurantism, believed in secularism and pluralism. But his ideals counted for nothing as his idea of national sovereignty clashed with the West’s economic interests. The Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who took power after the coup, would become the face of American manipulations. The US rewarded him handsomely and gifted him a nuclear programme through a civil nuke cooperation pact in 1957. The CIA and Israeli spy agency Mossad trained the Shah’s secret police force, which sustained his repression and would eventually prepare the ground for Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. The revolution led to the creation of an adversarial republic to the US in 1979 and a system of governance that allows clerics absolute political and legal authority. The system is a far cry from Mossadegh’s idea of constitutionalism and civic nationalism. A lawyer who studied in France and Switzerland, Mossadegh symbolised secular nationalism in Iran.

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A 444-day seizure of the American embassy and captivity of diplomats in Tehran followed the revolution. Kinzer has argued the crisis was not a result of ‘nihilistic rage’ but to prevent a repeat of the 1953 coup, which CIA agents operating from the embassy carried out. The US retaliated by sanctioning Iran. It backed Iraqi dictator Saddam’s invasion of Iran while the revolution also prompted the Soviets to invade Afghanistan to prevent its export to its backyard. The US resorted to the perversion of jihad to defeat Soviets, which would imperil world peace by leading to the creation of groups such as al-Qaeda.

Iran, meanwhile, fended off Saddam’s invasion for eight years until Tehran was forced to agree to a United Nations-brokered ceasefire in September 1988. The truce came after Americans brought down an Iranian civilian aircraft. The downing signalled to Iran the US was now openly siding with Iraq in the 20th century’s longest war, which is estimated to have left around a million dead. Saddam’s use of chemical weapons also forced Iran to accept the truce. Iran also survived American sanctions, which have left around 2,000 people dead in over 200 accidents blamed on the curbs that prevented Tehran from buying aircraft parts.

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Iran has overcome odds and emerged as one of the world’s top cement, steel, and automobile manufacturers on the back of the Middle East’s most extensive industrial base. In a The Diplomat piece in 2015, Richard Javad Heydarian said Iran is among the top countries in nanotechnology and stem-cell research as well as ranked as the world’s 17th biggest producer of scientific papers in 2012, ahead of Turkey and Israel. Maryam Mirzakhani, the winner of the first woman Fields Medal recognising outstanding mathematical achievement, is among the top scientists Iran has produced. Iran has also managed to maintain a military strength that poses the most potent threat to Israel, whose survival and security has been of central importance to the US in the Middle East.

The US invasion of Iraq for another regime change in 2003 by ousting Saddam on the pretext of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, too, benefitted Iran. The war and the American occupation of Iraq that followed, directly and indirectly, claimed about half a million Iraqi lives from 2003 to 2011. The US left Iraq in 2011 after the loss of 4,500 American lives and $1 trillion to economy. It ended up benefitting Iran by helping Tehran create a corridor of influence up to the Mediterranean. Iran used the corridor to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria and support Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hoshyar Zebari ouster in 2016 as Iraq’s finance minister because Iran distrusted him for his links to the US highlighted the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq. From cosmetics to eggs, milk, yogurt, and chicken, Iraq is dependent on Iran for virtually everything, which helps Tehran exercise an influence it would not have managed without the American intervention to change Saddam’s regime in 2003.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan