Afghanistan, Balochistan, Guest blogger, Iran, Pakistan

Balochistan through the Afghan back door

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance reporter who contributes to a number of media channels including Al-Jazeera. Here, he writes on the complexities of covering one of the most off-the-radar conflicts worldwide: Balochistan.

It had been four years since I last met Mr Purdely. The chain of uprisings in northern Africa and the Middle East that started in 2011 had kept me away from Central Asia, but I was finally back in Kabul last September, sitting down over a cup of green tea with Afghanistan´s best known Baloch intellectual.

A former MP during the rule of Mohammad Najibullah (1987-1992), Purdely is a professor and a writer. Among his several books one can also find those being used by the Afghan Baloch schoolchildren in Nimroz Province.

That far-flung spot in the country´s southwest had been the main goal of my trip to Afghanistan in 2010. It´s not just the only the area where Afghanistan´s little known Baloch minority constitute the majority. Nimroz is also the place where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran collide. If there is a “black hole” in Central Asia, that is certainly Nimroz.

“There are three schools in Nimroz where Balochi – their language – is being taught, which you may want to visit,” said Purdely, after proudly producing the whole set of school books he had released over the last four years. The normalisation of a long neglected language, however, was just one of the stories I wanted to cover during my trip.

Back in 2009 I had travelled to the Baloch populated areas bordering Nimroz in Iran and Pakistan. In retrospect, I have to admit that during the first trip to West and East Balochistan, as Baloch nationalists put it, I was barely familiar with the Marris, the Mengals, the Bugtis and the rest of the clans that make up the Baloch tribal fabric. But I did have a unique chance to detect the fear among regular Iranian Baloch of being hanged by the Iranian regime, or the appalling poverty in Pakistan-controlled Balochistan. Thanks to the help of local activists, I met victims of torture and abuses by the Pakistani security service, relatives of the myriad of missing Baloch –around 20,000 according to local sources. I also spoke to senior tribal leaders such as Khair Bux Marri or Attaullah Mengal, as well as to a few among those fighting in the rugged mountains of Pakistan´s southernmost province.

The outcome of that first visit to the troubled land of the Baloch would be a set of stories for several media wires which would eventually shed some light on this obscure conflict. The collateral effect for me would be a travel ban for Iran and Pakistan. To make a long story short, foreign journalists are prevented from entering the region, deported if they´re caught inside, and eventually beaten. Needless to say it´s far worse for the local reporters, forced to choose between “self-censorship”, according to Ahmed Rashid, or finding their names in the list of “killed and dumped”.

Paradoxically, Afghanistan had turned into my “safest” option to keep reporting on the Baloch and their conflict.

The Wild Southwest

The Taliban insurgency has made it impossible to travel overland across Afghanistan, except for a few spots like the legendary Panjshir valley, which works for a nice day-trip from Kabul. Flying is mandatory when it comes to moving around the country, and air connections between Kabul and Nimroz had slightly improved since my last visit in 2010. Back then, flights to Zaranj -the provincial capital – only departed from Herat, but last September there was a weekly flight from Kabul operated by a newly-established airline.

So I travelled there, met the Baloch teachers, the journalists who run a radio programme in Balochi and many other local activists struggling to revive their long-neglected language and culture. But there was obviously much more Afghanistan´s remotest province could offer to a freelance journalist. Nimroz is literally overrun by migrant Afghans bound for Iran, and it´s also a main hub for all sorts of smuggling: heroine coming from neighbouring Helmand province goes out, weapons come in…

In the country´s southwest I also came across dozens of Pakistani Baloch, either political dissidents or ordinary civilians, fleeing the war at home and seeking shelter in Afghanistan. Another striking story was that of the local Baloch who have found themselves living under the shadow of a border wall erected by the Iranians almost overnight. Many cross-border family ties were cut, and survival based on smuggling goods or growing crops was on the brink of collapse. Local villagers have left in their hundreds, leaving their mud houses behind. Among those who had not yet followed suit, it was not difficult to run into people who have been shot by the Iranian guards.

Officials at the water supply department in Zaranj told me that Iran is to blame for diverting and storing water from the Helmand River and also responsible for Nimroz´s endemic drought. But accusations went beyond interference in the water supply. The Iranian presence is overwhelming, something which is visibly evident in Zaranj´s massive bazaar area, with hundreds of stalls loaded with Iranian products. Transactions are made in Iranian currency and electricity to Zaranj also comes directly from Iran. Moreover, locals are highly suspicious of Iranian NGOs.

“This is a nest of spies,” could be read in graffiti on the walls of The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation´s headquarters.

Somewhere in the Mountains

My next stop on my Baloch tour across Afghanistan was Kandahar, so I was forced to fly back to Kabul. A first attempt to leave Zaranj ended up with the aircraft swerving violently across the runway after one of the engines collapsed during take-off. I had experienced something similar during my 2010 trip, so although it was pretty scary, it came as no surprise.

The flight was delayed until 5:00 a.m. the following day but I´d still be in time to fly to Kandahar at 1:00 p.m. Unlike Nimroz, Kandahar is not Baloch land as such but it hosts a significant Baloch community, which includes both Afghan and Pakistani Baloch. The Baloch Language Department at Kandahar´s university and the large number of families that have settled there after fleeing Pakistan´s south would definitely help me complete my stories on culture and refugees. However, there was another powerful reason behind my visit.

Contacts in Kabul had arranged a rare interview with Baloch insurgents from the Balochistan Liberation Army. The meeting point would be “somewhere in the Sarlat mountains”, a rocky massif on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It was a long drive, after which came a long hike. BLA commander Baloch Khan was waiting for me at an undisclosed location, escorted by three fellow fighters. They had walked for 12 hours from the other side of the border.

“Taliban presence in this border area is at its peak but they use their own routes and we stick to ours so we hardly ever come across them,” commander Khan told me. I found his words reassuring, kind of.

The 41-year-old guerrilla told me he felt very close to the Kurds, “as their land is also stolen by their neighbours”. He even admitted ideological parallels between his group and the Kurdistan Workers Party-PKK. Their enemies were seemingly sticking to similar tactics, yet in different degrees. While Ankara has been sending Islamic extremists into areas under the control of the Syrian Kurds over the last three years, Khan insisted that Islamabad was following a similar strategy to tackle the Baloch issue:

“Until 2000 not a single Shia was killed in Balochistan. Today Pakistan is funnelling all sorts of fundamentalist groups, many of them linked to the Taliban, into Balochistan to crush the Baloch liberation movement,” stressed the commander.

Apparently, there are around half a dozen Baloch armed groups operating in Pakistani Balochistan. One of them is the Baloch Liberation Front, a group led by Allah Nazar, a former physician, who today leads his fighters in the southern coastal region of Makran. Obviously I couldn´t travel that far without a visa but I did chat over the phone with Nazar to get his assessment of Pakistan´s alleged support for Islamic extremists. He spoke about the Taliban, and even gave me the coordinates of “at least four training camps”, where members of the Islamic State are reportedly receiving instruction with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services.

“The Islamic State is overwhelmingly present among us. They even throw pamphlets in our streets to advocate their view of Islam and get new recruits,” the former gynaecologist told me, visibly disturbed.

Kabul

Back in Kabul I met Purdely again to compare notes on “Afghan Baloch language and culture”. We both hoped we didn´t have to wait for another four years to see one other again. I also had to say goodbye to the rest of the Baloch who had backed me with info and logistics during my trip. One of them was Guljam, an exile from Pakistan who had been calling me on a daily basis to make sure I was always sticking to the right people.

During my first days in Kabul I had been meeting Guljam at the same coffee shop in a shopping mall to make the necessary arrangements before my departure to the country´s south. Dressed in his shalwar kamiz, the 38-year-old could walk completely unnoticed across the city. He could pass for an Afghan and, like them, he was also familiar with war. Yet his is another war, unfortunately one we barely ever hear of.

 

 

 

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RSAA member, Saudi Arabia

The Future for Saudi Arabia – an Ambassador’s view

Sir Harold Walker KCMG is a former UK Ambassador to Bahrain, the UAE and Iraq. He has long-standing experience of the Arab world, and also serves on the Council for Arab-British Understanding. He is an Honorary Vice-President of the RSAA.

The death of Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud at the age of about 91 and the succession of his half-brother Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, formerly the Crown Prince, as King of Saudi Arabia (or more properly Guardian of the Holy Places) has inevitably given rise to speculation about the future stability of the Kingdom, particularly given that Salman, who is 79, is said to be in ill health.

Stripped to essentials, the situation in Saudi Arabia is as follows. Saudi Arabia, the eponymous state of the Al Saud (Saud family), is a family business, with members of the large family placed in strategic positions throughout the state, including the security apparatus. As in any family there are internal disputes, but these are settled by family mechanisms. Already, the Deputy Crown Prince, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, another half-brother, has been smoothly moved up to be Crown Prince.

In a country that is deeply conservative (except in parts of the Hejaz) the family draws much of its strength from its historic alliance with the clerical authorities. King Abdullah saw the need for progress in the directions of secular education, rights for women, and increased political participation by his people; but to preserve the balance of forces within the Kingdom he proceeded at a pace that to outsiders was glacially slow.

King Abdullah showed great skill in manoeuvring between the conflicting pressures in the Kingdom, not to mention the formidably challenging external environment. It may be that Salman will not have the capacity to show the same sureness of touch. But the structure of the state will be strong enough to survive this possibility.

All the statements above are open to debate: are the mechanisms adequate to solve internal family rivalries; is the pace of social change too fast or too slow? However that may be, in the opinion of this writer there is no short-term threat to the stability of the Saudi state. What will force significant change upon it in the longer run, in ways that cannot be foreseen with precision, is one of King Abdullah’s major achievements, namely the Scholarship Program that now sees as many as 100,000 young Saudis studying in the United States.

23rd January.

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Central Asia

RSAA Lecture – Flora of the Silk Road

Every now and then there is an RSAA lecture that stands out head and shoulders above the rest. In the case of Flora of the Silk Road, turning up at St Peter’s Church Hall on a particularly damp and windy night, Chris Gardner’s illustrated talk was an unexpected gem.

A professional botanist with at least one plant species named in his honour, Gardner is also an accomplished photographer and the shear number of superb photographs in his slides certainly added another dimension to his talk. This was particularly the case for those of us who are less horticulturally inclined as we could easily visualise the similarities and differences in the varieties under discussion. 

Along with his wife, Gardner has led more than 40 botanical tours and expeditions to different parts of the Silk Road, from Turkey (where he lives and where his wife is head of the herbarium at Istanbul’s Botanical Garden) into Syria and Jordan, up into Central Asia and China, and south into India. Because he was travelling with botanical purpose, Gardener was inclined to visit areas well beyond the reach of most tourists, and what was seen to be his eccentric British obsession certainly got him out of more than one potentially uncomfortable encounter with understandably suspicious authorities. Gardner’s passion for the places he has visited, not to mention the plants he found there, came through strongly in both his words and pictures. He tacked questions from the floor with enthusiasm and a great depth of knowledge.

The video of Gardner’s lecture will shortly be uploaded to the RSAA website and will then be viewable for free by any RSAA member logged into the site. His beautifully illustrated coffee table book, Flora of the Silk Road: An Illustrated Guide, is also highly informative and can be purchased online from Amazon.

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Central Asia, Kazakhstan, RSAA member, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

Sufism and the State: Saints’ Shrines in Central Asia

Fitzroy Morrissey is an Oriental Studies Graduate of Oxford University. He has travelled extensively in the Islamic world, and is the author of A Sufi for a week. He is currently studying Persian as a graduate student. Here, he discusses the relationship between Sufism in Central Asia and the post-Soviet states.

For over half a millennium, Islam in Central Asia has revolved around three poles: (Hanafi) Sunnism, Persian culture and Sufism. These three are not separate but rather overlapping elements of Central Asian religious life, such that one scholar has recently declared, “Orthodox Islam and Sufism are very mingled in Tajikistan and the majority of believers are not able to make out the difference.” (Arabov, 2010, 346)

Often dismissed by observers of Islamic societies – as well as by Muslim fundamentalists – as a “heterodox” or “folk” form of Islam, Sufism has in fact long been an integral part of the religious orthodoxy of Central Asia: the clerics (ulema) who guard and define that orthodoxy have traditionally enjoyed close ties to the local Sufi orders (tariqas). The Naqshbandiyya order, which arose in the Transoxanian city of Bokhara in the late-13th, early-14th century, and is the most popular order in Central Asia, is particularly well known for its sobriety and emphasis on upholding the sharia.

Unsurprisingly, Sufism – and Islam more broadly – experienced a major decline as a public presence in Central Asia during the Soviet period, which saw Sufi lodges (khanqas) forcibly closed and the widespread banning of the practice of visitation to saints’ shrines (mazar) – a ritual traditionally practised even by those with no formal connection to the Sufi orders. Yet the survival of Sufi practices and beliefs among certain groups, especially the Naqshbandis, has allowed for a Sufi revival to take place since independence in 1991/92. Since then, many Sufi shrines have been renovated, visitation of saints’ tombs has once again become an important part of religious life, and several Sufis have taken important positions in the religious hierarchies of the Central Asian republics.

The issue of saints’ shrines is a particularly important one, for it gives us an insight into the extent to which the state has been prepared to patronise Sufism and promote it as an integral part of their state’s national identity and history. In Uzbekistan, where the state’s relationship with the Sufi orders and their leaders, post-independence, has flitted between support and suspicion, the two most important shrines are those of Baha’uddin Naqshband, the 14th century sheikh after whom the Naqshbandiyya is named, and Khoja Ahrar Obdayollah, another prominent Naqshbandi sheikh, who lived in the 15th century. These two sheikhs are key figures in the history of the development of Naqshbandi thinking and practice. Baha’uddin is said to have introduced the so-called “silent zikr” (zikr-e khafi) into Naqshbandi ritual, which still distinguishes the meditative practice of the Naqshbandis from the more extravagant, musical rituals of other orders. Khoja Ahrar, meanwhile, perhaps more than anyone else embodied the key Naqshbandi doctrine of “solitude in the crowd” (khalvat dar anjuman), which meant that Naqshbandi disciples could and should play a prominent role in the economic and political life of the community, while constantly remembering God. This latter doctrine helps partly to explain the traditional prominence of Naqshbandi Sufis in Central Asian politics – Khoja Ahrar himself was involved in the Timurid administration, and is said to have accrued considerable personal wealth as a landholder. (For Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah’s life and political and economic role in the community, see Gross & Urunbaev, 2002, Ch. 1.)

Because of the special importance of Baha’uddin and Khoja Ahrar within the history of Central Asia’s most important Sufi order, it is no surprise that their shrines are still significant today, on both the religious and political levels. In Soviet times, the shrine of Baha’uddin Naqshband, located near Bokhara, was closed, and used by the authorities as a storehouse for fertiliser, indicating the extent of Soviet disregard for Central Asia’s religious heritage. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the shrine was reopened in 1989. The post-Soviet government of Islam Karimov (with financial support from Turkey, where there is a large Naqshbandi community) subsequently paid for the renovation of the shrine in 1993, to mark the 675th anniversary of Baha’uddin’s birth. The government also sponsored a number of initiatives in celebration of the anniversary: Uzbek President Karimov, along with the then Chief Mufti, Mukhtarkhan Abdulayev, himself a Naqshbandi Sufi, attended a commemorative ceremony at the shrine, an academic conference dedicated to Baha’uddin was organised, a Naqshbandi cultural foundation was founded in Bokhara, and the main street of the city was renamed after the saint. (For these measures, see Louw, 2007, 55-6)

According to the imam of the mosque adjoining Baha’uddin’s shrine, the Uzbek government’s patronage of the shrine complex, and its broader support for the country’s indigenous Sufi institutions, has been motivated by a desire to counteract what he called the “Wahhabi outlook”, referring to the puritanical form of Islam that has gained a foothold in Central Asia (particularly in the guise of the Hizb ul-Tahrir movement) and other parts of the Islamic world over the past half century, and which is widely seen as the ideological basis for Islamic radicalism. Certainly, the imam’s comments give a strong indication of the thinking behind the Central Asian governments’ often supportive approach towards Sufism. Sufism represents a more peaceful, tolerant and less political version of Islam than the Wahhabi interpretation. Furthermore, the Naqshbandiyya, and Sufism more generally, is an important part of the region’s cultural and religious heritage, and can thus be presented by Central Asian states as the indigenous form of Islam, in contrast to “foreign” Islamic fundamentalism.

Yet, turning to the shrine of Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah, which is found near Samarkand, we also get a sense of the ambiguity of the Uzbek state’s relationship with Sufism. As in the case of the shrine complex of Baha’uddin Naqshband, the Uzbek government provided funds for the renovation of the shrine and for celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the saint’s birth in 2004. However, according to a report on Sufism in Central Asia authored for the Carnegie Endowment by Martha Brill-Olcott, the Uzbek government has become increasingly concerned about some of Obaydollah’s political teachings, particularly his call for a society governed by sharia, and for Naqshbandi disciples to involve themselves in political affairs. This concern led to the Uzbek authorities delaying the scheduled anniversary celebrations on two occasions and limiting a planned conference on the life and teachings of the sheikh to a small, local affair. Such suspicion on the part of the state towards Khoja Ahrar’s political views not only demonstrates the continued relevance of the teachings of famous Sufi masters in Central Asia, but also gets to the heart of the state’s ambiguous relationship with Sufism and the Sufi orders. On the one hand, the Uzbek government celebrates and supports Sufism as an important part of the country’s cultural and religious heritage and a potential bulwark against Islamic radicalism. On the other, it seems suspicious of the organisational capabilities of the Sufi orders, especially the more politically active Naqshbandiyya (the Qadiriyya is currently the only other major order in Uzbekistan), fearing that those capabilities might one day be translated into political action against their rule.

The issue of saints’ shrines is also relevant to the Central Asian states of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Located in these two countries are the tombs of two extremely important figures in the history of Sufism: Seyyed Ali Hamadani, a contemporary of Baha’uddin Naqshband, originally from Hamadan in Iran but buried in Kulab in southern Tajikistan, and Ahmad Yasavi, a 12th century Sufi who gives his name to the Yasaviyya order, and whose tomb lies in the Kazakh city of Turkestan. Seyyed Ali Hamadani was a sheikh of the Kobravi order, which was historically one of the most important tariqahs in Central Asia, before it died out at the end of the 16th century, its place being taken by the Naqshbandiyya. Hamadani is credited with bringing Islam to the Kashmir region, where he is celebrated as a saint, and was also a prominent thinker in the school of Ibn ‘Arabi, which is famous for its elaboration of the doctrine of vahdat-e vojud or “the oneness of existence”.

In the case of the cult of Ali Hamadani, we witness the same kind of state involvement that we saw in the Uzbek state’s patronage of the shrine of Baha’uddin Naqshband and Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah. Following the civil war in the country (1992-97), the Tajik authorities, with support from Iran, funded the renovation of Hamadani’s shrine and the construction of a museum dedicated to the Sufi at the shrine complex. At the same time, the government declared Hamadani a national saint – his face subsequently appeared on the 10 somoni banknote. At the beginning of 2014, meanwhile, to mark the 700th anniversary of the saint’s birth, it was announced that the Tajik state, again in conjunction with Iran, would provide funds for the reconstruction of the park where Hamadani’s museum is located and for celebrations connected to the anniversary, while the Iran-Tajikistan Friendship Society announced plans for a Seyyed Ali Hamadani Foundation. Meanwhile members of Tajikistan’s political elite are said to frequently visit the shrine. As in the case of Uzbekistan, the Tajik government’s decision to patronise the legacy of Seyyed Ali Hamadani can best be understood as part of a broader policy to promote a more tolerant, politically quietist – in a word, Sufi – interpretation of Islam as the country’s indigenous religious tradition, as a bulwark against the imported threat of fundamentalism.

The mausoleum of Ahmad Yasavi in the Kazakh city of Turkestan is one of the oldest surviving examples of state patronage of a saint’s shrine in Central Asia. The Yasaviyya order, which looked to Ahmad as their founder and guide, played a key role in bringing many of the nomadic Turkic (and later Mongol) tribes of Central Asia into Islam. Known as a popular order of wandering dervishes, the Yasaviyya are said to have incorporated many of the traditional shamanistic practices of the Turkic tribes into their rituals, thus easing the conversion process. As a bridge between the Islamic and Turkic worlds, therefore, the cult of Ahmad Yasavi was especially appealing to the 14th century conqueror Timur (known in the west as Tamerlane), a Turkic-Mongol warrior who sought to depict himself as the heir to the universal empire of Genghis Khan, yet also a Muslim who defined his rule in Islamic terms. For this reason, Timur patronised a major reconstruction of Ahmad Yasavi’s shrine, which was already an important site of pilgrimage. By linking his rule to the cult of Ahmad Yasavi, Timur was able to tap into the power of the cult of saints that was widespread throughout Central Asia, and thus to acquire religious legitimacy for his rule. This policy of patronising shrines as a means of gaining legitimacy in Islamic terms was continued by his Timurid successors, who also renovated and expanded the shrine of the famous 11th century Sufi Abdullah Ansari at their capital Herat, as well as the ‘Alid shrine at Balkh and the mausoleum of the Shi’a Imam Reza at Mashhad. Clearly, Timur and his successors understood that, if they were able to present themselves as protectors and patrons of the saints, the baraka (spiritual power) of those saints that the pilgrims sought might rub off on them. (For the Timurids’ patronage of shrines, see Subtelny, 2007, Ch. 6.)

Today, the shrine of Ahmad Yasavi is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an undoubted source of Kazakh national pride. As in the Uzbek and Tajik cases, following independence the Kazakh state was quick to identify the shrine as a point of reference in its efforts to construct a new national identity. Once again we find that state funds were provided for the renovation of the shrine, and 1993 – the same year that the Uzbeks celebrated the life of Baha’uddin Naqshband – was declared the year of Ahmad Yasavi in Kazakhstan. Like Baha’uddin and Ali Hamadani, Ahmad Yasavi has thus become something of a national saint. (see Low, 2007, 49-50)

The relationship between Islam and the state in the republics of Central Asia remains a contested issue. In providing state support for the cults of their nations’ most famous medieval mystics, the governments of these republics have sought to define this relationship. The message seems to be that the state is the guardian of the nation’s religious heritage, and that Sufism is an integral part of this heritage. In so doing, the governments are drawing on an ancient precedent – even before Timur, rulers sought legitimacy through the patronage of Sufi saints’ shrines (the Seljuks’ patronage of the shrine and cult of the famous Sufi Bayazid Bastami being one notable example). The policy of supporting saints’ shrines therefore seems to have two major goals, namely: helping to construct a new national identity through the appropriation of the past, and promoting a more tolerant form of Islam as a counterweight to Islamic radicalism. In the long run, the success of this policy will be determined by whether long-held traditions such as visitation to saints’ shrines are able to survive the onslaughts of secular modernism and radical Islam, both of which are critical of the cult of saints. If the survival of the practice of visitation during the Soviet era – and its subsequent revival – is a good indicator, then the shrines will continue to play a prominent role in the religious and cultural life of Central Asia for many years to come.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Ann-Gross, J & Urunbaev, A, The Letters of Khwajah ‘Ubayd Allah Ahrar and His Associates (Brill, 2002).

Arabov, O, “A note on Sufism in Tajikistan: what does it look like?”, Central Asian Survey, 23:3-4 (2010), 345-347.

Brill-Olcott, M, “Sufism in Central Asia: A Force for Moderation or a Cause of Politicization?”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2007).

Louw, E, Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia (Routledge, 2007).

O’Dell, E, “The Teaching, Practice, and Political Role of Sufism in Dushanbe”, NCEEER Working Paper (2011).

Roy, O, The New Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Birth of Nations (I.B. Tauris, 2007)

Subtelny, M, Timurids in Transition: Turko-Persian Politics and Acculturation in Medieval Iran (Brill, 2007)

Trimingham, J, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Weismann, I, The Naqshbandiyya: Orthodoxy and activism in a worldwide Sufi tradition (Routledge, 2007).

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North Korea, RSAA member

Assassinations, cyber attacks and sanctions: North Korea in the limelight

Dr Jim Hoare was chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy in Pyongyang from 2001 to 2002. He is also an academic and historian specialising in Chinese and Korean history, and is a member of the editorial board of Asian Affairs. Here, he gives a point of view on the recent confrontation between North Korea and the United States over the censorship of Sony’s The Interview:

It would have been hard to miss the furor over the Sony Pictures film, “The Interview” over Christmas. “The Interview” is a comedy – their description, not mine – about the assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Earlier in the year, North Korea protested at the subject and demanded that the film be withdrawn. Sony refused. Then Sony Pictures, which is a U.S. based corporation, was hacked. Not only were unreleased films, including “The Interview”, made available on line, thus costing the company large amounts in lost revenue, but embarrassing e-mails about company affairs were made very public. As the hackers added unspecified threats about what would be done if the film was released, Sony seems to have panicked and announced that the film’s premier would be cancelled and that its general release in the United States, due on Christmas Day, would not take place.

Given the background and the continued hostility between the United States and North Korea, inevitably the finger pointed at the later as the perpetrator. The FBI announced that there was no doubt that the North Koreans had carried out the attack, although it produced no evidence. President Obama took up the theme, indicating that Sony was wrong to cancel the film’s release, as this was giving into a terroristic attack on free speech and promised that appropriate action would be taken. No definition was given of what would be appropriate action. North Korea rejected the allegations and demanded a joint enquiry into the issue. The US predictably rejected this- though the US had supported the South Koreans in a similar demand for a joint investigation in 2008, when a North Korean guard shot dead a South Korean tourist for allegedly failing to stop when ordered.

Sony then had a change of mind and announced that the film would be shown in selected, if minor cinemas – the big chains would not handle it. It was duly shown with no untoward incidents, while filmgoers boasted that they were defending free speech – and presumably the right to suggest that it is OK to encourage the assassination of leaders you do not like.

The North Koreans continued to denounce the film but seem to have done nothing more. Meanwhile, a massive cyber attack was launched on North Korea’s internet facilities – yes, they do have them – which were knocked out for a day or so. Was this President Obama’s “appropriate action”? We do not know and the US authorities have refused to comment on speculation to that effect. Formally, the “appropriate action” was a set of sanctions imposed after New Year, directed at a number of agencies and senior officials. In explanation, government officials indicated that none of the organizations or individuals names were necessarily involved in the hacking. As the former State Department official, Joel Wit, now at Johns Hopkins, noted, the sanctions were unlikely to have much effect given the relatively little travel carried out by North Korean officials and the absence of vast bank accounts that can be targeted.

Not all are convinced that the case against the North Koreans is proven. Most non-governmental cyber experts in the US have cast doubt on the government’s claims, pointing out that the attack has many of the marks of an inside job by a disgruntled Sony employee – the material posted from the company’s records indicated a somewhat unhappy state of affairs. The rest of the film industry has kept silent about the affair; given Hollywood’s well-known record of appeasing dictators, this should come as no surprise.

Whoever did it, it is unlikely that the US reaction will change North Korea’s behaviour or have much effect – though “The Interview” looks as though it might prove more of a success than at first seemed likely. What we seem to be seeing is evidence of the continued US frustration at its inability to persuade North Korea to behave as it wants it to and the lack of interest in the Obama administration to try to engage with the North. This may began to run counter to South Korean policies, which seem steadily to be edging towards some form of rapprochement. But it would not have been the first time that South Korean and US policies towards North Korea have been out of sync.

 

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