Thursday, September 10, 2015

What the Arab World Can Learn from Oman

    Thursday, September 10, 2015   No comments

Earlier this year, the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) released a report on foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. Of the 20,000 counted by ICSR, most hailed from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and countries of the former Soviet Union. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia topped the list with a combined 3,000-5,500. However, there has not been one reported case of an Omani fighting on the battlefields of Iraq or Syria.

As the only Arab nation that has not had any of its natives join the ranks of Daesh ("Islamic State"), some analysts point to Oman's signing of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and Muscat's establishment of an Anti-Money Laundering (AML)/Combating the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) system, which, according to the Financial Actions Task Force, is compliant with international standards.

Daesh's reported failure to recruit a single Omani -- or to inspire "lone wolf" attacks in the sultanate--must be analyzed, however, within the context of Oman's foreign policy and social norms. Unlike other Gulf Arab monarchies, hardline Wahhabism/Salafism is not a pillar of Muscat's foreign policy, which has instead emphasized diplomatic engagement with all actors in the region and a rejection of extremism in all forms. Consequently, Oman does not face blowback on the scale as other Arab states which have sponsored intolerant teachings and supported hardline Salafist militias in Syria and beyond.

During the 8th century, the Omanis of the interior adopted Ibadi Islam -- a sect distinct from Sunnism and Shi'ism. Ibadi Islam, which predates both the Sunni and Shi'ite denominations, is an extant of the Khārijite movement (Islam's first subgroup). Oman is the world's only Ibadi-majority country and while the sect has its followers in Zanzibar and the Maghreb, three-quarters of the world's Ibadi Muslims are Omani.

Ibadism is frequently described as a conservative yet tolerant sect that emphasizes the "rule of the just" and rejects violence as a means to political ends. As Ibadism constitutes a key pillar of Oman's national identity, the sultanate's foreign policy appears to reflect the sect's moderating influence on Omani society. As Jeffrey A. Lefebvre put it, "Agreeable disagreement with friends and peaceful compromise with enemies would appear to be consistent with Ibadi thought in the conduct of foreign policy."

The Ibadi sect's emphasis on tolerance and moderation is underscored by the accommodations that Oman's leadership provides the 25 percent of the population that is not Ibadi. Oman's legal system offers extensive protection to religious minorities (Hindus, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, etc.)

Rhetoric that promotes sectarian strife is not only unpopular in Oman. It is simply not tolerated. Under the Basic Law, religious discrimination is prohibited and all individuals are free to practice religious rites as long as they do not disrupt the public order. The crime of "defaming" any religion or inciting sectarian hatred is punishable with a prison sentence of up to ten years. Posting messages online that "might prejudice public order or religious values" can land one in prison for a year, along with a fine of USD 2,600. Although Oman's Personal Status and Family Legal Code strips a father who converts from Islam--the official religion of Oman--of his paternal rights, apostasy is not criminal. This is in significant contrast to Saudi Arabia, where public beheadings of people found guilty of apostasy and corporal punishment for those guilty of blasphemy are common occurrence.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia -- where the kingdom's three million Shi'ite Muslims and 1.5 million Christian expatriates have no formal Shi'ite mosques or churches -- Oman permits the existence of Sunni and Shi'ite mosques, Hindu temples, Christian churches and Sikh gurdwaras. Ibadi, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims pray together in the same mosques and Muslims can enter Hindu temples and Christian churches (even if that is a rare occurrence). According to the U.S. State Department's Oman 2012 International Religious Freedom Report, "there were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination [in Oman] based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice."

Whereas some political and religious leaders in a number of Arab states have played off sectarian hatred to urge their countries' youth to fight in Iraq and Syria, such rhetoric has virtually no appeal among Omanis who are not indoctrinated with the intolerant teachings of Wahhabism in contrast to large segments of other MENA countries.


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