Top 10 international Muslim stories of 2017

In this review of 2017’s international news stories relating to the global Ummah, Roshan Muhammed Salih says there is no doubt that the Muslim majority world continues to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Whether it be the devastating conflicts in Syria and Yemen, or the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, or the Saudi-Iran rivalry fuelling further tension in the Middle East, we can only pray that 2018 brings better news.

Here’s our top 10 stories of 2017.

THE PERSECUTION OF ROHINGYA MUSLIMS

The Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar suffered a brutal military crackdown and ethnic cleansing throughout 2017, forcing at least 600,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

An estimated 830,000 people now live on the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar and many more are arriving every day.

Medicines Sans Frontieres estimates that there have been at least 6,700 deaths from violence although the real number is likely to be much significantly higher. And the world has been “outraged” at the savagery of the atrocities, sexual violence and genocide.

A recent assessment by the International Rescue Committee found that nearly 95 per cent of refugees are drinking untreated water, risking a cholera outbreak.

But all this seems to have bypassed the conscience of the Burmese leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Sun Kyi, who says the crisis has been exaggerated and that the Rohingya have been conducting “terrorist attacks”.

ISIS DEFEATED IN IRAQ AND SYRIA

2017 was a bad year for ISIS.

By the end of the year, Iraq had declared its war against the group over several months after it took back the city of Mosul at much cost to civilian life. Iraqi forces were backed by an unlikely coalition which included Iranian military advisers and US warplanes. ISIS now controls next to no territory in Iraq.

In Syria, ISIS lost its capital Ar-Raqqa in October to Kurdish ground forces backed by US and British warplanes. Again, the civilian loss of life was considerable and thousands of ISIS fighters and their families were allowed to leave the city in a secret deal.

At its peak, 10 million people lived under ISIS control, but now it controls only pockets of territory in Syria.

That said, many of the grievances that Sunni Muslims, especially, in the region and beyond have not been addressed so ISIS will still probably be able to attract recruits. It may well also attempt to launch a counter-attack in Iraq and Syria and will expand in other areas, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And it will likely continue to carry out, or at least inspire, attacks in the Western world.

ASSAD CONSOLIDATES GAINS IN SYRIA

Syria’s horrific war continued to be the worst crisis affecting the Ummah throughout 2017, with an estimated 40,000 dead during the year.

By the end of December, President Assad controlled most of the main population centres including the two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

However, Idlib in the north remains in the hands of rebel groups while Raqqa in the east was taken by US-backed Kurdish forces.

The Syrian battlefield remains complicated but there are signs that the international sponsors of the various factions are reaching some kind of accommodation regarding an end game.

Turkey, Iran and Russia are sponsoring peace talks, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar seem less influential on the ground than they once were.

Most analysts now accept that Bashar Al-Assad will remain in charge of at least a major part of the country, but it seems that a complete victory for Damascus remains a distant prospect.

NO END IN SIGHT FOR DEVASTATING WAR IN YEMEN

The horrific war in Yemen has gone well under the radar of the Ummah. Yet, since Saudi Arabia and its allies started bombing the country in 2015 to restore the ousted government, around 10,000 people have been killed, 50,000 injured, and over 3 million displaced.

What’s more, the United Nations has warned of the dire consequences of a cholera outbreak in the Arab world’s poorest nation, which has been exacerbated by the siege Saudi Arabia has imposed on the country.

Riyadh accuses the Houthi movement, which deposed ex-President Hadi, of being an Iranian proxy and of planning to capture the whole of the nation on behalf of Tehran.

In December, Saudi managed to drive a wedge between the Houthis and their ally ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Clashes in Sana’a ended with Saleh’s death and the breaking of the erstwhile alliance.

Since then Riyadh and its allies on the ground have recently mounted another offensive to displace the Houthis from the capital.

DONALD TRUMP TARGETS MUSLIMS

President Donald Trump started off his presidency by trying to ban citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. He said the countries included – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Sudan – were areas which posed a “terrorism” risk.

Despite the fact that the implementation of the ban was stymied by the courts, more than 700 travellers were detained and up to 60,000 visas were provisionally revoked.

Muslims called the ban discriminatory, racist, Islamophobic, and an affront to minimum standards of human rights.

Towards the end of the year, Trump retweeted anti-Muslim tweets from the far-right Britain First party’s deputy leader, Jayda Fransen. Even after he was informed that she was a notorious Islamophobe, he refused to delete the retweets.

And in December, Trump once again insulted the world’s Muslims by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In doing so, he was condemned by virtually all of his allies in both the Muslim and non-Muslim world.

CROWN PRINCE MUHAMMAD BIN SALMAN EMERGES AS DE FACTO RULER OF SAUDI ARABIA

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman emerged as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in 2017, with his ailing father King Salman taking a back seat.

MBS was behind a number of high-profile policies which included escalating the war in Yemen, increasing tensions with Iran, isolating Qatar, strong-arming the Lebanese President, and bringing secret ties with Israel out into the open.

But perhaps MBS’s most audacious actions were to arrest several members of the Saudi elite on corruption charges and to take on the Saudi religious establishment.

MBS is certainly the most powerful man in the Kingdom and seems to be popular among the youth with his “modernisation agenda”. But by abandoning the tradition of power-sharing among the Saudi princes, is he creating too many enemies for himself?

QATAR ISOLATED BY GULF NATIONS

In June, several Gulf countries – led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – cut off diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar. They accused the tiny and hugely wealthy country of supporting terrorism and being too close to Iran.

Qatar refused to cede to its accusers’ many demands, which included the shutting down of the Al Jazeera TV network. Doha said it was being targeted because it insisted on pursuing independent policies.

The boycott has undoubtedly hurt Qatar politically and economically, but it has managed to weather the crisis thanks to its huge financial reserves and with help from Turkey and Iran.

PALESTINIAN FACTIONS SIGN UNITY DEAL

In October, the two main Palestinian factions – the secular Fatah which is committed to negotiations with Israel, and the Islamic resistance group Hamas which is committed to armed resistance – signed a unity deal in Cairo.

The deal led to Fatah taking partial control of Gaza and the easing of an economic siege of the coastal strip by Egypt. However, Hamas refused to lay down its weapons.

Both Fatah and Hamas are in desperate predicaments. After 10 years of siege, Hamas needs to offer some relief to the people of Gaza, and with the peace process going nowhere Fatah needs to give its own constituency in the West Bank some good news.

It remains to be seen if the deal will last and whether the sponsors of the accord will attempt to put pressure on the factions to negotiate with Israel.

PRESIDENT ERDOGAN EMERGES STRONGER AFTER FAILED COUP AND TURKISH REFERENDUM

In April, Turkey said “yes” to a presidential system, which in effect granted long-time leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan more constitutional power.

The referendum was held under a state of emergency after Erdogan survived a coup attempt the previous year.

In the end, the Turkish people approved changes to the constitution – which included abolishing the position of Prime Minister and increasing the number of MPs – by a narrow 51-49 per cent split.

Although Erdogan clearly remains the most popular politician in the country, the nation remains divided between secularists, Islamic and pro-Kurdish groups.

KURDISH INDEPENDENCE BID FAILS

An independence referendum was held in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25 with 93% of voters supporting independence.

The Kurdish people have long coveted their own states in nations such as Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

The vote was opposed by most nations around the world including Turkey and Iran who have sizeable Kurdish minorities of their own. They warned that any independence bid could lead to war.

In fact, Israel – which has long had ties with Kurdistan – was the only notable country to support the referendum.

The vote result led to Iraqi forces launching an operation to retake the city of Kirkuk, which occurred in October. At the end of the month, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani announced his resignation.

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