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Weekend Edition

Friday, August 18th, 2017

What the gods drank

Friday, August 18th, 2017

by D.N. Jha

There was a ruckus in the Rajya Sabha over the alleged association of Hindu deities with alcohol PHOTO/Indian Express/Ravi Kanojia

It may be pointed out that there were a large variety of intoxicating drinks, nearly 50 types of them, available in ancient India. The use of alcohol by men was quite common, despite occasional dharmashatric objections in the case of Brahmins; and instances of drinking among women were not rare.

I was amused to read in the media that there was a ruckus in the Rajya Sabha over the alleged association of Hindu deities with alcohol. Since the objectionable remarks were expunged, I am not able to refer specifically to the god or to the MP who mentioned him. Our politicians may not be well versed in all our ancient lore specially because and knowledge of the past is not their strong point; but it is not too much to expect that they should have the basic idea of the qualities and activities of the divinities whom they worship and defend. For constraints of space it is not possible to discuss here the traits of all those gods and goddesses who used alcohol, but I would like to draw the attention of readers to only few of them who binged on intoxicating drinks.

In the Vedic texts soma was the name of a god as well as of a plant from which a heady drink of that name was derived and was offered to gods in most of the sacrifices; according to one opinion it was different from another intoxicating drink, sura, which was meant for the common people. Soma was a favourite beverage of the Vedic deities and was offered in most of the sacrifices performed to please gods like Indra, Agni, Varun, Maruts and so on, whose names occur frequently in the Rig Veda. Of them Indra, who is known by 45 epithets and to whom the largest number of Rig Vedic hymns — 250 out of more than a thousand — are dedicated, was the most important. A god of war and wielder of thunderbolt, rowdy and adulterous, potbellied from excessive drinking, he is described in Vedic passages as a great boozer and dipsomaniac; he is said to have drunk three lakes of soma before slaying the dragon Vritra. Like Indra, many other Vedic gods were soma drinkers but they do not seem to have been tipplers. Agni, for example, may have drunk moderately though a detailed analysis will show that teetotalism was unknown to the Vedic gods and drinking was an essential feature of sacrifices performed in their honour. In a ritual performed at the beginning of the Vajapeya sacrifice, a collective drinking took place in which a sacrificer offered five cups to Indra as well as 17 cups of soma and 17 cups of sura to 34 gods.

Like the Vedic texts, the epics provide evidence of the use of intoxicating drinks by those who enjoy godly status in Hindu religion. In the Mahabharata, for example, Sanjay describes Krishna (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) and Arjuna in the company of Draupadi and Satyabhama (wife of Krishna and an incarnation of Bhudevi), exhilarated by Bassia wine. In the Harivamsa, which is an appendix to the Mahabharata, Balarama, an avatara of Vishnu, is described as “inflamed by plentiful libations of kadamba liquor” dancing with his wife. And in the Ramayana, Rama, an avatara of Vishnu, is described as embracing Sita and making her drink pure maireya wine. Sita, incidentally, seems to have a great fascination for wine: While crossing the river Ganga, she promises to offer her rice cooked with meat (shall we call it biryani!) and thousands of jars of wine, and while being ferried across the Yamuna, she says that she will worship the river with a thousand cows and 100 jars of wine when her husband accomplishes his vow. The use of alcohol by the gods is not confined to the Vedic and epic traditions. In the Puranic mythology, Varuni, who emerged from the samudramanthana (churning of the ocean), is the Indian goddess of wine; Varuni was also the name of a variety of strong liquor.

The Tantric religion is characterised by the use of five makaras — madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (gesture) and maithuna (sexual intercourse) — and these were offered to gods, though only the followers of Vamachara were entitled to the use of panchamakara (five Ms).

Indian Express for more

Inside Saudi Arabia’s first feminist literary magazine

Friday, August 18th, 2017

by NATASHA BURGE

Past issues of Jahanamiya


‘I want to counter Western stereotypes about Middle Eastern women, while highlighting issues for Saudis that aren’t spoken about in Saudi society.’

Ahd Niazy tells me she is having a tough week; it’s her final semester at Emory University, where she is a double major in Creative Writing and Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture and Society, and the senior crunch is well underway. As we speak via FaceTime, she is sitting in a computer room on campus and in the background I occasionally see flustered students walk by.

Ahd is the creator and editor-in-chief of Jahanamiya, Saudi Arabia’s first feminist literary magazine. In just three issues, the magazine has pushed the boundaries of the Saudi literary establishment with startlingly intimate pieces of fiction, essay, and poetry.

Jahanamiya denotes the bougainvillea plant in Arabic?—?a carefully chosen word. The bougainvillea grows easily in Saudi Arabia, can look after itself (it hardly needs any tending), and is very hardy and colorful?—?so it adds something beautiful and vibrant to the world, Ahd explains to me. It’s a metaphor for the voices of Saudi women, she adds.

Since 2011, when Raja Alem became the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for her book The Dove’s Necklace, the international literary community has become increasingly interested in Saudi writers. With Jahanamiya, Ahd is bringing the diverse voices of Saudi women into this spotlight.


In just three issues, the magazine has pushed the boundaries of the Saudi literary establishment with startlingly intimate pieces of fiction, essay, and poetry.

Even through my computer screen, it is clear that Ahd is a warm and thoughtful speaker who brims with a contagious enthusiasm. After spending many of her childhood years in Alabama, and the last four years studying in Georgia, she laughingly refers to herself as a “Southern Saudi girl.”

We find ourselves careening off on multiple tangents during our conversation. We laugh at the mirrored image we make?—?an American in Saudi Arabia interviewing a Saudi in America. We’re both adult-third-culture-kids so we also spend a lot of time exploring the complex notions of “home” we wrestle with.

Ahd was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but her family moved to Birmingham, Alabama when she was only a few months old. After spending her formative years there, her family moved back to Jeddah when she was 11. Ahd recalls this return to Saudi Arabia as a pivotal event in her life.

“It was a hard time because my father wanted my younger sister and I to get acclimated to Saudi culture very quickly. He wanted us to completely shift and that wasn’t really possible for me,” she tells me.

The Establishment for more

Intersex rights

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

by ALICE DREGER

“When I was born, the doctors couldn’t tell my parents what I was: They couldn’t tell if I was a boy or a girl. Between my legs they found ‘a rudimentary phallus’ and ‘fused labio-scrotal folds.’ They ran their tests, they poked and prodded, and they cut open my belly, removed my gonads, and sent them off to Pathology. My parents sat in the hospital cafeteria, numb, their hearts as cold as the Manhattan February outside.” In the photo above, Max Beck (in tuxedo) and (on the left) as he appeared in college, when he was known as Judy. “Beck died of mullerian/vaginal cancer at age 42 in early 2008, leaving his wife Tamara and two children.” PHOTO/TEXT/PBS/Wikipedia

Children born with in-between sex development are subject to surgeries that many believe violate their human rights

People tend to assume that everyone is born simply male or female. But nature shows us otherwise. About one in 2,000 babies is born with genitals roughly halfway between male and female types. Their genitals might include what looks rather like a penis along with what appears to be a vaginal opening. More subtle forms of in-between sex development are much more common than that. In fact, with modern science, we find that as many as one in 100 of us might have some sex-development type other than the standard male or female, although some will never have occasion to find out.

Nevertheless, cultural attachment to the idea of a clear, simple division between (only) two sexes runs deep. Many physicians believe that there’s nothing we can do about that cultural anchor – You can’t change society, they say. So they think that, for the children’s sake, it’s sometimes necessary to do ‘corrective’ surgeries to make children who are born intersex look more typically female or male. Although statistics can be hard to pin down, it appears that in the United States today, at least one in 300 children is born with a difference of sex development (DSD) evident enough to the naked eye that a paediatrician might recommend an expert consultation.

Variations on typical sex development occur most commonly in boys, and most commonly in the form of hypospadias. Hypospadias is a condition in which the urinary opening is not on the very tip of the penis but lower down the head, or on the shaft of the penis, or, more rarely, at its base. Girls can be born with atypical sex development, too. For example, during foetal development, the clitoris might grow larger than average and can sometimes look like a small penis.

Quite simply, these sex variations occur because the typical male and the typical female represent two ends of a developmental continuum. The clitoris and the penis grow from the same proto-organ in development. In the same way, the labia majora and the scrotum grow from the same tissue. Most newborns have developed genitalia at one end of the developmental spectrum or the other. But not everyone.

And genitals are by no means the only component of sex biology that can vary. What we call simply ‘biological sex’ is in fact a many-factored trait involving various hormones, hormone receptors, external genitals, internal reproductive organs, and much more. Consequently, there are dozens of different ways for what we could call ‘intersex’ development to occur.

Some intersex types are not noticeable at birth. This happens, for example, when a baby is born appearing typically male or female, but has some internal organs of the other sex. Some people don’t find out that they have a relatively uncommon form of sex development until they hit puberty and don’t develop according to expectations. Some don’t find out until they are older, when they run into trouble trying to have children and, through medical diagnostics, find out that their sex is more complicated than they expected.

Detecting intersex at a late stage comes with an advantage: it gives the person a chance to be informed and make a choice about whether to change her or his own body. Babies born with genital anomalies usually have the choice made for them. In paediatric medicine, when a child has a visible intersex condition, since at least the 1960s, standard practice around the world has been to surgically change the child’s body to look and function in accord with cultural standards.

Hypospadias ‘repair’ surgery involves moving a boy’s urinary opening to the tip of the penis. It is today so common that paediatric urologists in the US refer to it as a ‘bread and butter’ operation. It’s performed not only because some adults believe that a hypospadic penis looks wrong, but also because they believe that, if you want to grow up to be a normal man, you have to urinate standing up.

Every day, in children’s hospitals around the world, doctors do these and other ‘normalisation’ surgeries. But controversy over them has been steadily increasingly over the past 20 years, and has now reached almost fever pitch. That’s because intersex patients’ rights activists have been effectively reframing paediatric genital ‘normalisation’ surgeries as a violation of human rights. They argue that children should be allowed to grow up and decide for themselves whether to have optional sex-altering surgeries.

Aeon for more

On the beach 2017. The beckoning of nuclear war.

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

by JOHN PILGER

IMAGE/Weebly

The US submarine captain says, “We’ve all got to die one day, some sooner and some later. The trouble always has been that you’re never ready, because you don’t know when it’s coming. Well, now we do know and there’s nothing to be done about it.”

He says he will be dead by September. It will take about a week to die, though no one can be sure. Animals live the longest.

The war was over in a month. The United States, Russia and China were the protagonists. It is not clear if it was started by accident or mistake. There was no victor. The northern hemisphere is contaminated and lifeless now.

A curtain of radioactivity is moving south towards Australia and New Zealand, southern Africa and South America. By September, the last cities, towns and villages will succumb. As in the north, most buildings will remain untouched, some illuminated by the last flickers of electric light.

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper

These lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men appear at the beginning of Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach, which left me close to tears. The endorsements on the cover said the same.

Published in 1957 at the height of the Cold War when too many writers were silent or cowed, it is a masterpiece. At first the language suggests a genteel relic; yet nothing I have read on nuclear war is as unyielding in its warning. No book is more urgent.

Some readers will remember the black and white Hollywood film starring Gregory Peck as the US Navy commander who takes his submarine to Australia to await the silent, formless spectre descending on the last of the living world.

I read On the Beach for the first time the other day, finishing it as the US Congress passed a law to wage economic war on Russia, the world’s second most lethal nuclear power. There was no justification for this insane vote, except the promise of plunder.

The “sanctions” are aimed at Europe, too, mainly Germany, which depends on Russian natural gas and on European companies that do legitimate business with Russia. In what passed for debate on Capitol Hill, the more garrulous senators left no doubt that the embargo was designed to force Europe to import expensive American gas.

Their main aim seems to be war – real war. No provocation as extreme can suggest anything else. They seem to crave it, even though Americans have little idea what war is. The Civil War of 1861-5 was the last on their mainland. War is what the United States does to others.

The only nation to have used nuclear weapons against human beings, they have since destroyed scores of governments, many of them democracies, and laid to waste whole societies – the million deaths in Iraq were a fraction of the carnage in Indo-China, which President Reagan called “a noble cause” and President Obama revised as the tragedy of an “exceptional people”He was not referring to the Vietnamese.

Filming last year at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, I overheard a National Parks Service guide lecturing a school party of young teenagers. “Listen up,” he said. “We lost 58,000 young soldiers in Vietnam, and they died defending your freedom.”

At a stroke, the truth was inverted. No freedom was defended. Freedom was destroyed. A peasant country was invaded and millions of its people were killed, maimed, dispossessed, poisoned; 60,000 of the invaders took their own lives. Listen up, indeed.

A lobotomy is performed on each generation. Facts are removed. History is excised and replaced by what Time magazine calls “an eternal present”. Harold Pinter described this as “manipulation of power worldwide, while masquerading as a force for universal good, a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis [which meant] that it never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”

Those who call themselves liberals or tendentiously “the left” are eager participants in this manipulation, and its brainwashing, which today revert to one name: Trump.

Trump is mad, a fascist, a dupe of Russia. He is also a gift for “liberal brains pickled in the formaldehyde of identity politics”, wrote Luciana Bohne memorably. The obsession with Trump the man – not Trump as a symptom and caricature of an enduring system – beckons great danger for all of us.

JP for more

Indonesians seek to export a modernized vision of Islam

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

By JOE COCHRANE

Members of Nahdlatul Ulama in Jakarta in 2011, during a commemoration of the group’s founding in Indonesia in 1926. Its youth wing is making a global push to bring Islamic law into line with modern norms. PHOTO/Supri/Reuters

The fighter’s bloodied shirt draws immediate attention — but so does a necklace dangling from the body: a Christian cross, worn by the independence martyr for the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

The 2006 painting has become the symbol of a global initiative by the Indonesian youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest mass Islamic organization in the world, that seeks to reinterpret Islamic law dating from the Middle Ages in ways that conform to 21st-century norms.

Among other things, it calls for a re-examination of elements of Islamic law that dictate relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, the structure of government and the proper aims and conduct of warfare.

Leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama’s youth wing, known as Ansor, say that elements of Shariah, which Muslims consider divine law, are being manipulated by groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda to justify terrorist attacks around the world, invoked to rally fighters to battle in the Middle East and elsewhere, and distorted by movements that seek to turn Islam into a political weapon.
Continue reading the main story

“The classical Islamic perspective is dominated by views that position non-Muslims as enemies or, at best, as suspicious figures not worthy of trust,” H. Yaqut Qoumas, Ansor’s chairman, said in an interview.

“Fiqh,” or the body of jurisprudence that applies Shariah to everyday life, “explicitly rejects the possibility of non-Muslims enjoying equal rights with Muslims in the public sphere, including the right to occupy certain positions,” he said. “This classical Islamic perspective continues to possess an extraordinarily powerful authority in the eyes of most Muslims, and is regarded as standard, orthodox Islam.”

Some interpretations of classical Islamic law teach that Muslims have a duty to seek out and fight Christians, Jews and followers of Zoroastrianism until they either convert to Islam or submit to its rule and pay a head tax.

These interpretations have been enthusiastically adopted by the Islamic State.

Also, some interpretations of classical Islamic law, and of certain passages in the Quran, forbid Muslims from having non-Muslim political leaders. Medieval Islamic jurisprudence, still regarded as valid by some, is used to justify slavery and the execution of prisoners.

A 2006 painting by the Dutch artist John van der Sterren depicts Indonesia’s founding leader, Sukarno, cradling an independence fighter in the 1940s. The rebel’s Christian cross has made the image a symbol of the drive to reinterpret Islamic law. SOURCE/Nahdlatul Ulama

Some predominantly Muslim countries have been moving to reinterpret Islamic law within their borders, with some sending delegations to a 2016 international conference of scholars, religious leaders and clergy members in Morocco on protecting the legal rights of religious minorities living among them.

The Indonesian initiative, however, aims to directly approach governments around the world, both Muslim-majority and otherwise, as well as at the United Nations, to achieve a global consensus on reforming what it views as archaic interpretations of Islam.

“The challenge we face is not confined to religious views that emerged through an intellectual process conducted a thousand years ago. We are also confronted by religious and political authorities whose institutions are deeply intertwined with these views, and thus continue to inculcate such teachings among each new generation of Muslims,” Mr. Yaqut said.

The New York Times for more

(Thanks to reader)

Hate speeches made by Hindu groups, crosses desecrated: Goa on fanaticism alert

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

by POULOMI BANERJEE

The cemetry in Curchorem village, where crosses were desecrated and niches and graves broken PHOTO/Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times

Crosses have been desecrated, hate speeches made. Fanaticism is trying to break in. There is apprehension. But Goans are determined to defeat attempts to polarise the state

Last month Goa was jolted by a spate of desecration of crosses, causing grief and alarm to the Catholic community in the state. ‘The method of destruction was the same everywhere – the base of the cross was broken by hitting it with some heavy implement,’says Father Savio Fernandes, executive secretary of the Council for Social Justice and Peace, which has been engaged in fact-finding studies into the desecrations.

It was a Saturday morning in July. Agnelo Fernandes, a retired seaman and resident of Goa’s Curchorem village was dressed to go out, but decided to call a staff member of the local church before doing so, to check with him the schedule for a Mass to celebrate the local MLA’s birthday. The committee member told him about desecrations at the church cemetery. Fernandes rushed to the cemetery – one of his daughters is buried there. “When I reached, I found bones lying near the entrance. Some crosses had been broken and niches damaged. I made my way to my daughter’s grave and the niche we had made in her memory. The granite stone covering the niche was broken. Still it didn’t strike me. Then I saw the satin bag on which I had written her name, her date of birth and the date of her death, before putting her bones in it to preserve her memory, lying on the ground. It was then that I realised that the bones lying near the entrance were my daughter’s,” he says, with barely concealed pain.

Last month Goa was jolted by a spate of desecration of crosses, causing grief and alarm to Catholics inthe state. There were also reports of a temple being vandalised. “The method of destruction was the same everywhere – the base of the cross was broken by hitting it with some heavy implement. More than 40 structures were damaged,” says Father Savio Fernandes, executive secretary of the Council for Social Justice and Peace, which has been engaged in fact-finding studies into the desecrations. In some places the headstones on the graves and niches – where families preserve the mortal remains of a departed member – were broken. Goa Police has arrested Francis Pereira, a resident of Curchorem for the desecrations and claimed that he has confessed to the crime. But more desecrations were reported after Pereira’s arrest.

Goa, says writer Brian Mendonca, means a “certain acceptance, a certain kind of flexibility to be able to look at life wholistically and to be able to accommodate various cultures and views.” But now “I think the Hindutva people are desperately trying to find a toehold in Goa,” he says.

Communalism Blog for more

The limits of tolerance

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

by PAUL RUSSELL

Tolerance is critical. Manchester, England, 2013 PHOTO/Christopher Furlong/Getty

Throughout the Western world, the political ‘Left’ is in disarray. It is fragmented, rudderless and lacks a coherent plan to stem the tide of ‘populism’, nationalism and xenophobia. Identity politics and questions of religion have done much to fuel both the Right’s xenophobic tendencies, and the Left’s fragmentation. The ‘Old Left’ embraced a simple Manichean worldview of good versus evil: the enemy was easily identified (the rich and powerful, who oppressed the poor and the weak), and its agenda was simple and clear (redistribution of wealth and greater economic equality).

In contrast, the ‘New Left’ has introduced multiple new agendas – and enemies. The ‘Old Left’, it is said, was insensitive about issues affecting a range of marginalised groups, who identify themselves along lines of race, gender and sexual orientation. The three-legged stool of the Old Left – ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ – was never very secure, but when fraternity was replaced by the demands of group identity, little stability remained.

Among other things, the core Old-Left liberal value of religious tolerance has now come into confrontation with the identity politics of the New Left. Indeed, one central strand of New Left thinking regards all talk of (liberal) ‘religious tolerance’ as mere camouflage concealing deep and systematic disrespect and unequal treatment of religious minorities. From this perspective, what needs priority is not so much the right of individuals to choose their religion as they see fit and without interference, but the rights of religious groups to secure and preserve their standing and identity in a society that would otherwise marginalise them.

How should the Left understand and practise religious tolerance in the face of the emphasis that various groups now place on the value of their religious identities? This is a question that has, of course, become tangled up with overlapping issues, such as racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and various forms of nationalist xenophobia. But we should keep these issues separate and focus on the difficult enough question of the relationship between religious toleration and identity politics. Much of the (New) Left analysis, which concentrates on the language and agendas of identity politics, has paid too little attention to a very significant distinction that falls within the various identities that have been proposed as a basis for rectifying various forms of social injustice and unequal treatment: the distinction between ideological and non-ideological identity commitments. A lack of clarity about this basic divide within identity politics has led to a serious failure to provide credible understanding of what tolerance requires when we are confronted with questions about the rights of different religious groups to be treated equally and with respect.

Aeon for more

Why is great philosopher Kautilya not part of Pakistan’s historical consciousness?

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

by SAIF TAHIR

The Mohra Muradu monastery lightly kissed by sunlight PHOTO/Saif Tahir

When nearby residents tire of the daily grind, and when the temperatures soar in the summer, they seek respite at the glistening Khanpur Lake, located in the Haripur District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

But on the way to Khanpur, just beyond the precipice of Taxila, one notices there a signboard that has rusted with age. Mohra Muradu Remains, it says, marking a thin road that snakes off into lush fields reminiscent of all those beautiful vistas you might see in a nature documentary on Pakistan

Walking along the road, one sees a small village perched upon a mountain, and a stream that rumbles with the authentic, tidal force of Mother Nature.

East of that stream are the remains of an old settlement, fairly preserved: a large stupa and other structures crafted out of black stone, the remnants of a 2nd century BC monastery called Mohra Muradu.

Mohra Muradu was one of the 18 monasteries – Jolian, Dharmarajika, Sirkap, and Pipplan being the other important ones – that constituted Takshashila – the world’s first known university and a powerhouse of academic knowledge.

It is to be noted that although the word ‘university’ was not invented back then, Takshashila, which was formed in 7th century BC, functioned very much like a university.

The Buddhist sacred scriptures, the Jatakas, mention Takshashila as a centuries-old centre for learning. It was here that the Mahabharta was first said to be recited.

The rise of Gandhara, a kingdom in the northwestern region of present-day Pakistan, had a significant impact on Takshashila’s growth. The university offered 63 courses that included Vedas, astronomy, philosophy, surgery, politics, warfare, commerce, music, archery, and other performing arts.

Dawn for more

Salman meets al-Sadr: Saudi Arabia in search of an Iraqi Shia nationalist

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

by MADAWI AL-RASHEED

By seeking to court the leading Shia politician, the Saudi crown prince is stirring up conflict within Iraq’s Shia factions but he could be playing with fire

On 30 July Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomed controversial Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

This is not Sadr’s first visit since the 2003 American occupation. He arrived in Riyadh in 2006 at the height of the Iraqi resistance to the occupation and the Iraqi civil war. But the visit was unsuccessful then. It yielded little benefits to either side. Like other aspiring clerics turned politicians, Sadr entered Iraqi politics with his own Jaysh al-Mahdi militia that later changed its name to the Peace Brigades.

Saudi Arabia grew very frustrated over the Iranian expansion in Iraq after 2003 and found itself constantly backing losing Iraqi horses. From patronising Sunni tribal chiefs in 2005 as part of al-Tawafuq electoral list to backing the Iraqi Sunni-Shia coalitions under Iyad Allawi in 2010, Saudi efforts to find an entry into post-Saddam Iraqi politics led to further frustration amounting to hostility on several occasions.

Saudi relations with Iraq deteriorated so much during Nouri al-Maliki’s premiership with Iraq bluntly accusing Saudi Arabia of sponsoring terrorism and precipitating a sectarian war in Iraq as a result of its Wahhabi ideology and the Saudi jihadis found in Iraq. Only in 2015 did a Saudi ambassador return to Iraq after almost 25 years of absence.

Sadr’s recent visit to Jeddah is a break from past Saudi practices and strategies. Mohammed bin Salman and his Trump administration backers want to limit Iranian expansion in the Arab world without outright military confrontation with Iran or its various militia that operate in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

An ally against Iran

Consequently bin Salman is building on a new strategy to lure the controversial but famous and influential Shia cleric into Riyadh’s orbit. If he decides not to boycott the 2018 Iraqi elections, Sadr and his Sadrist movement, popular among the poor of Baghdad’s Madinat al-Sadr and the south, will need all the support he can summon against his Shia rivals, for example the Dawa Party and other weaker Iraqi secularists, both appealing to the aspiring Iraqi middle classes.

Sadr’s relations with Iran have always been tense and he never enjoyed the full support of either Iranian officials or the grand ayatollahs of Qum. The first despised his Arabness and erratic politics while the latter resented his unwillingness to endorse the theory of Wilayat al-Faqih, or rule of the jurists, which is at the heart of the establishment of the Islamic republic.

Although he descends from a family of Shia religious scholars, Sadr is not an established theologian and has no high training that would allow him to become an ayatollah one day.

MEE for more