The optimistic ending of my article last week was immediately blunted by a meme I received on 4 January that pronounced on 1 January, the new decade was going fairly well; on 2 January, Australia is on fire; and on 3 January, World War III has begun. The latter is a reference to the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani by drone strike in Baghdad on the orders of US President Donald Trump.
Although his name was not well known before his death, the killed general was an important figure, as the head of the Quds Force within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the architect of Iran’s regional policy also widely believed to be the second most powerful man in the country (i.e. after the Supreme Leader, above the President). Furthermore, he was popular, having been instrumental in fighting Iran’s enemies such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Thus, with hundreds of thousands joining in mourning for him in Tehran, the Iranian government is able to speak for an Iran more united today than just a few days ago, with many critics prioritising (at least for now) taking a common stance against an external enemy.
The postulated reasons behind the killing have ranged from a response to the mobbing of the US Embassy in Baghdad, an attempt by Trump to divert attention away from his impeachment trial or, as The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah has reminded, Trump himself predicted in 2011 that the US President (then Barack Obama) would attack Iran as a strategy to win the upcoming presidential election.
As I write, the retaliation promised by Iran seems to have begun, with missile strikes against US bases in Iraq.
Every major newspaper around the world is releasing op-eds about the possibility of wider war, though the prevailing hope is that conflict will not spread beyond the region. Still, it lends substance to the meme I received last Saturday.
Certainly, a sudden boost of searches online for Archduke Franz Ferdinand indicates a worry that, as happened 106 years ago, one assassination could trigger a series of events that might ultimately lead to wider war. Of course, the historical context is vitally important in any such analysis (and thus any attempt to draw parallels to today): the cycles of conflict, negotiation, peace and revolution throughout Europe in the decades, even centuries, leading up to that day. Sadly, the geopolitics of recent years has indeed seen tension, recklessness and brinkmanship.
Let us hope that enough lessons have been learnt from history, and that sufficient popular pressure and common sense will prevent a catastrophic escalation into war.
Unlike the heir apparent of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, Qassem Soleimani did not (as far as I’m able to ascertain) visit Malaysia (or more accurately, a state that was later to be a part of Malaysia), but weeks after hosting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Kuala Lumpur Summit, Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir said that Muslims should unite, suggesting that “If anybody insults or says something that somebody doesn’t like, it is all right for that person from another country to send a drone and perhaps have a shot at me.”
Domestic politics was dominated, however, by the first change to the cabinet since the 2018 General Election: the departure of the Minister of Education Dr Maszlee Malek. When he was first appointed amidst some scepticism, I noted his prior experience (including at the IDEAS Autism Centre) and hoped that he would “be guided by our Federal Constitution, which should be inculcated into every young citizen, while introducing the best teaching methods based on international evidence. At the same time he should remember that our publicly-funded schools and universities exist to serve parents and children, and as such decentralisation and choice should be maximised so that different – but equally legitimate – visions of the perfect Malaysian child can evolve into a diverse citizenry that will chase the perfect Malaysia together.”
Interestingly there was a geopolitical angle among the theories of his departure: despite the leaking of a letter from the Prime Minister to the Education Minister outlining some of the reasons to “withdraw from the Cabinet”, it was suggested that Dr Maszlee’s purported plans to reopen the King Salman Centre for International Peace, backed by Saudi Arabia, cost him his job.
This has been flatly denied, yet the links between education, conflict and the environment – those three things that dominated the first week of the year – are undeniable. An unpredictably behaving planet is bound to cause more discontent, leading to likelier conflict, for which education and evidence-based action are the only true antidotes.
Hopefully, whoever next leads the government’s education portfolio will understand this innately.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is Founding President of IDEAS