Religion & Geopolitics Weekly Roundup

At a Glance

Religion & Geopolitics Weekly Roundup

23 Apr 2015

In the Roundup this week we look at the historical roots of sectarian identity in Lebanon and the increasingly sectarian nature of conflicts in the Middle East.

We also feature analysis on the expansion of Hizbullah into Syria, the origins of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, escalating religious violence in Pakistan, and highlight the success of religious freedom in Brazil.

Top Stories

Lebanon: Lebanon was founded with a multi-sectarian identity, where minorities are key partners in the political process. However, internal challenges and external threats have led to an increasingly fragile sectarian landscape, write Lina Khatib and Maxwell Gardiner.

Sectarianism: The rhetoric of sectarianism is increasingly permeating the conflicts currently engulfing the Middle East, a symptom of the absence of an inclusive political identity in the region, argues Gerald Butt.

Middle East & North Africa

ISIS: There are reports that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has stepped back from a leadership role in ISIS.  The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics examines the role Baghdadi plays as 'caliph' and the implications in the event of his replacement. 

ISIS: Debate continues over the role of former Baathist army and intelligence officers in ISIS' development and advances.  Christoph Reuter analyses new papers reporting to be a blueprint for the structure and tactics of the group written by Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr) a former Iraqi intelligence colonel, killed in January 2014. 

Jordan: In light of the opposition the Muslim Brotherhood is facing across the Middle East in recent years, Jordan's chapter has undertaken reforms.  Neven Bondokji examines the key challenges and internal divisions the group faces. She recommends introducing new leaders and styles of communication to engage with pluralist politics.

Syria: Hizbullah is beginning a spring offensive alongside Syrian forces, against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra positions near the Lebanese border, confident of success.  Vahik Soghom speculates that success in this theatre could allow the Shia militia to extend its operational activities to other Syrian provinces.

Yemen: As the conflict in Yemen continues, despite calls for a cease-fire,  The Economist argues that the biggest winner is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The group has taken advantage of the chaos between the Houthis and Saudi-led airstrikes to increase the areas under its control.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Nigeria: Following Nigeria's commemoration of the first anniversary of the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls, the origins and ideology of Boko Haram are examined by Emily Mellgard.

Somalia: On 21 April, the US State Department designated as international terrorists, al-Shabaab leader Ahmad Umar and Mahad Karate, a senior member of the Amniyat, the al-Shabaab wing believed to be responsible for the recent attack on Garissa University. Thomas Joscelyn explains the roles of the Amniyat, which reportedly include intelligence gathering and special operations. 

Somalia: As al-Shabaab continues to carry out deadly attacks in Somalia and Kenya, Emily Mellgard explores the origins and ideology of the group in an updated backgrounder.

South & Central Asia

Tajikistan: Until last month Tajikistan was the only Central Asian state in which political Islam had representation. It is now tightening state control over religion, including personal dress and travel, due to fears about radicalisation.  Catherine Putz examines these new policies, which are perceived by many in this Muslim majority country as a crackdown on their faith.

Pakistan: Religion is increasingly used to justify escalating levels of violence in Pakistan. Bina Shah outlines the risks of a 'counter-narrative' proposed by many both inside and outside the country to emphasise Sufism as an alternative to extremism. She argues that this approach has the potential to backfire, tearing the country further apart rather than healing its divisions.

Caucasus: The prevalence of Chechen commanders in the upper echelons of ISIS has put the community's response to radicalisation in the spotlight.  Mairbek Vatchagaev describes the failure of Chechen elders to counter ISIS propaganda, which particularly targets young Chechens, brought up in a conflict environment.

East Asia, South East Asia & Oceania

China: China has announced an investment plan centring on a new economic corridor between Gwadar in Pakistan and Xinjiang in China.  M Ilyas Khan studies the security implications of this, particularly in terms of militant groups who operate in the region, after reports that Uighur and Pakistani militants have been targeting Chinese nationals in Pakistan.

Myanmar: As the Rohingya Muslim community continues to flee oppression in Myanmar, Axel Kronholm looks at the challenges they face to avoid falling victim to criminal trafficking gangs in Thailand and Malaysia. Human rights organisations report that the Rohingya face abuse and torture once they escape the country, with over 250,000 thought to have left since 2012.

Australia: A growing number of Australians are reportedly travelling to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS.  Andrew Zammit investigates domestic responses to this issue, he concludes that while returning foreign fighters pose a threat to Australia, the challenge requires a wide-ranging response, including a range of 'non-coercive' measures.

South America

Brazil: The high level of religious freedom in Brazil is notable as the country arguably undergoes one of the most dynamic religious shifts in the world today, with no religious or sectarian conflict, writes Brian Grim.


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