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Muslim conflicts

December 08, 2012

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FROM the desert of the Sahel to the islands of the Pacific, Muslim peoples and states are today afflicted by conflicts and violence of varying dimensions and intensity.

The malicious myth propagated by Islam’s adversaries is that Muslims are prone to violence due to their faith and culture.

‘Islamic’ terrorism, militancy and extremism are the only ones to have acquired a religious sobriquet. With this simplistic explanation for every situation of conflict and violence involving Muslims, it has become much easier to brush aside the legitimate interests and rights of Muslim states, nations and communities across the world.

It is thus essential to analyse the nature and causes of the current crises and conflicts in the Islamic world and point to the steps required to resolve them.

A first observation is that most Muslim conflicts are local. Whether in Cairo, Damascus, Benghazi or Baghdad, these conflicts arise mainly from local political, social and economic causes. Often, if unresolved, these conflicts intensify and extend beyond their original boundaries. Broadly, such ‘local’ conflicts can be placed in four categories: socioeconomic, ethnic, sectarian and externally imposed. Frequently, these categories overlap.

The Arab Spring and the dramatic political changes it propelled have been the most visible manifestations of indigenous socioeconomic revolt in the Arab and Muslim world for decades. Even after emerging from colonial and foreign rule or tutelage, common people in the Islamic world remained quiescent under unequal rule by elites.

The genie of rising popular expectations and demands, unleashed by growing inequality, poverty and injustice and the Internet, will be difficult to put back in the authoritarian bottle. Yet, such popular revolts, as evidenced by the history of almost all ‘democratic’ nations, also crystallise these fault lines in societies — class, sect, ethnicity, political affinity — yielding a period of turbulent transition.

The “revolution (often) eats its children”. Its achievements can be reversed. Stability will only come to the countries of the Arab Spring through clear political direction and rapid economic growth.

Ethnic differences and diversity are another cause of the current conflicts within Muslim states. The Kurds, dispersed across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, have remained a source of dispute and violence especially since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The competing loyalties among the Pakhtuns, Baloch, Azeris and similar ethnic communities within and across Islamic states create difficulties in the governance of these states and complicate interstate relationships. These ethnic issues require equitable and wise domestic and regional solutions to be promoted by governments of the concerned states.

A third and disturbing cause of conflict in the Muslim world is growing sectarianism. The modern incidence of violence between the Sunni and Shia communities dates back to the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Soon after, the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, supported by ( Zia-ruled) Pakistan, the US, Saudi Arabia and others, saw the rise of Sunni militancy.

The years after the end of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan witnessed the first round of Sunni-Shia violence in Pakistan, mostly financed and sponsored by outside powers. Pakistan remains afflicted by this menace of sectarian violence. But the sectarian divide has now emerged as a strategic issue, with implications that go well beyond the Muslim world.

Today, Shia ‘power’, wielded by Iran, Iraq, Alawite Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon is ranged against Sunni states — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt — in the battle for Syria. The latter are supported by the US and Europe. The outcome will determine the balance of power in West Asia. This sectarian contest obviously has further weakened the ability of Muslim states to promote pan-Islamic objectives.

These pan-Islamic objectives would normally be to protect and promote Muslim communities and groups which face discrimination, oppression and violence from non-Muslim sources. The most celebrated Islamic cause is to restore the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and secure Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories, including (East) Jerusalem. Due to internal fissures and weaknesses, the ability of the Arab and Islamic world to secure this ‘sacred’ goal in Palestine and Al Quds has progressively declined.

Inevitably, the political space has been increasingly occupied by extremists on both sides, neither of which wants the internationally prescribed two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The recent Gaza skirmish may presage a wider conflict which may draw in not only the West Bank Palestinians but also neighbouring Arab states.

Two decades ago, the cause of Kashmir used to enjoy equal billing with Palestine on the Islamic agenda. Today, not even Pakistan mentions the ‘K’ word in its speeches at the UN. Yet, Kashmir will continue to see violence because of the refusal of its people to accept Indian rule and inevitably force itself on the Islamic and Pakistani agendas.

There are several other situations of Muslims being oppressed in non-Muslim states, most recently the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The Islamic countries have yet to develop effective diplomatic mechanisms to offer aid and protection to such oppressed Muslim minorities in non-Muslim states.

The creation of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda was the violent response of Arab and Muslim extremists to the perceived injustices against Muslim people, especially by the West. Al Qaeda proclaimed a global and anti-Western campaign and perpetrated the 9/11 atrocity. It also was provided the ‘opportunity’ to fight Western armies close to home — in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But most of Al Qaeda’s violence has been directed against fellow Muslims, especially in Pakistan, but also in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and now in Mali. Worse yet, Al Qaeda’s actions and pronouncements have been utilised by adversaries to portray every Muslim militancy as terrorism. Thus, all Kashmiri militant groups have been depicted as terrorists, although most of them did not have affiliations with Al Qaeda.

However, it is clear that such ‘labelling’ is expedient for the West (also known as the “international community”). Mullah Omar and most Taliban leaders and groups were placed on the US and Security Council ‘terrorism list’. Once it was clear that negotiations would be needed with them, a concerted effort was made to take ‘cooperative’ Taliban off the list. Since the Haqqani ‘network’ is seen to be non-cooperative, it has been recently placed on the terrorism list. Pakistan was asked in the past to kill or capture the Afghan Taliban leadership; now it is being asked to release them to expedite negotiations.

Some general conclusions can be drawn from this analysis. First, economic and social development is essential to resolve most Muslim conflicts and must be the first priority. Second, a much greater effort is required to explain and project the real nature and causes of various ‘local’ conflicts. These should not be allowed to be tarred with the Al Qaeda brush.

Third, Muslim states need to overcome the sectarian and ethnic divisions which will further weaken them, individually and collectively. Fourth, external (non-Muslim) intervention or involvement in a Muslim conflict is unlikely to prove positive in the long term. Solutions would be best promoted by the concerned Muslim parties themselves. Finally, the Islamic Conference (OIC) must be awakened from its slumber to serve its prescribed role as the vehicle for Islamic cooperation.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.