Revolt and renaissance

January 19, 2014


MUCH of the Muslim world — from the Maghreb to the Indonesian archipelago — is in the throes of violent change. Conflict is now spreading beyond the Islamic periphery. The one area of relative peace, the kingdoms of the Gulf, is also fragile.

Each specific conflict, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and others, has its particular causes and characteristics. However, it is no coincidence that almost the entire Muslim world is in turmoil of one form or another.

If seen away from the immediate context of each conflict, it is clear that what is happening in the Muslim world is the historical overthrow of the centuries-old Western colonial order imposed on Islamic countries. This did not happen when most Muslim nations achieved political independence during the latter half of the 20th century. The colonial order was extended by the new local elites who assumed power in these countries.

The historical inflection point reached today is the result of a series of interlocking events and developments over the past 30 years.

These include: the Islamic revolution in Iran which created a polar centre for Shia Islam; the Mujahideen ouster of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, marking the birth of Sunni hihadism in the Muslim world; the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of several new Muslim majority states; US global hegemony and hubris leading to unjust positions on Muslim problems particularly Palestine; birth of Al Qaeda and global terrorism directed against Western domination; 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan and, later, of Iraq; US withdrawal from these countries, a decade later, leaving behind disorder and conflict; the ‘Arab Spring’, encouraged by democrats, opening the door for the rise of Islamic parties across North Africa and Syria.

Although these developments had different impacts on individual countries and regions, in almost each case, they led to the rise of Islamist parties. Given the failure of the ruling forces in these countries — democrats and dictators — to provide basic economic needs or meet popular political aspirations, the default option of their peoples was the one set of beliefs they could not reject: their religion.

The current Muslim crises and conflicts are more complex and intense because of three additional factors: one, the involvement of one or more of the Great Powers aligned with regional regimes or factions; two, the rising confrontation between Shia and Sunni Islam, led by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively; three, the growing fissures among the Sunni radical parties: Wahabis, the Islamic Brotherhood, the Salafists and Al Qaeda.

The piecemeal and partisan efforts that are currently being pursued under the leadership of the Great Powers to address Muslim conflicts are unlikely to produce peace and stability, Nor are these likely to advance the strategic objectives of rival regional or global powers.

In Syria, the Assad regime may survive but the country will be divided into a patchwork of religious and ethnic fiefdoms. Iraq’s tripartite division into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions is a geographic reality and may soon become a political fact. Lebanon is veering towards another civil war and possible division along denominational lines. Turkey is suffering the Syrian blowback and its regional and Kurdish policies are in tatters. Civil war is likely to resume in Afghanistan after the US-Nato withdrawal.

Pakistan faces twin threats of violence: Sunni extremism (the TTP and Al Qaeda) and Shia-Sunni sectarianism. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster in Egypt will win temporary respite but is likely to reinforce more violent Islamist factions. Hamas’ setback in Palestine due to Morsi’s exit will not benefit Fatah, which has nothing to show from its engagement with Israel. It is the Salafists and Al Qaeda who will gain influence and adherents.

Libya has become ‘militialand’; Algeria is a powder keg; Morocco’s polity is vulnerable to radical forces. The virus of violence is spreading to additional regions: Central Asia, India, Myanmar and wherever Muslim peoples are facing injustice or suppression. It is high time for the Muslim world to take its destiny in its own hands. Muslim statesmen and leaders should seek to capture the momentum produced by today’s violent events in order to promote a political, economic and social renaissance in the Islamic world.

A first step should be to convene an emergency summit of the most powerful Islamic countries: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia and Malaysia. It should agree: one, not to support violence by sectarian or ethnic factions in other Muslim countries, and two, launch a collective campaign against all forms of terrorism.

Thereafter, an OIC summit could be convened to endorse these two mutual assurances and promote the following agreements: one, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of every OIC state and non-intervention in each other’s internal affairs; two, collective help to OIC states facing sectarian violence to overcome this; three, collective support for the just solution of external disputes or security threats facing individual OIC states; four, active cooperation to protect Muslim minorities facing injustice, oppression or violence; five,

creation of a mechanism for mutual economic and financial cooperation, in particular the elimination of poverty among Muslim peoples.

Much of the groundwork on each of the above mentioned objectives has already been done under the auspices of the OIC. What is needed is the political will to transform these objectives into reality. Given the stark choice confronting Islamic leaders today — between Muslim chaos or revival — such political commitment surely should be forthcoming.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.