By Ayaz Amir
August 30, 2013
Now it is Syria’s turn, western powers, overcome by feelings of humanitarianism, itching to intervene. If this wasn’t sinister enough, Muslim countries ranged on either side of the Syrian divide: Iran backing Bashar al-Assad; Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on the other side.
Then Muslims all over the Islamic crescent look for foreign conspiracies to explain their troubles. Happily, the world of Islam is self-sufficient in the matter of conspiracies. We just can’t manage our affairs, this incapacity a greater cause of our sorrows than the machinations of outside forces.
What threat is Bashar al-Assad to the Saudi monarchy or the Emir of Qatar, or Turkey for that matter? But they must choose to make his ouster their own cause even if this means moving dangerously close to western interests. Muslim countries fighting each other, by proxy, on Syrian soil for abstruse and largely unidentifiable ends: can Israel ask for anything more?
Ah, but the Syrian dictator has used chemical weapons and how can that be tolerated? Well, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran and the US, far from being horrified, gave him intelligence assistance – in the form of satellite pictures of Iranian deployments – which played a key part in preventing Iran from emerging victorious in that war (this coming out in unclassified CIA documents).
The fury over chemical weapons is reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq war. Then it was weapons of mass destruction and no amount of evidence that Saddam did not possess them (Saddam having become an enemy by then) could stop that chorus, because George Bush and his neo-con warriors were hell-bent on war. The Archangel Gabriel could have appeared and that would have made no difference. Now the target is Syria, and much the same logic is at work.
Massacre in Cairo, but that’s all right because America and Saudi Arabia don’t want the return of the Muslim Brotherhood. No ambivalence over Syria because the aim is not the pursuit of humanitarianism – perish the thought – but regime change, the ouster of al-Assad.
Qaddafi tried so hard to appease the western powers, but didn’t succeed. They just hated him and wanted him out. He faced internal opposition but what proved crucial was not that but the Anglo-French air strikes, which crippled his military power and gave an edge to his opponents.
The only thing different in Syria is that Russia, having learnt its Libya lesson, is backing Assad. And under Putin Russia wants to assert itself. Remember, Putin is an old KGB hand. Soviet greatness, when the word of the Soviet Union counted, and subsequent Russian decline – do these memories figure somewhere in his calculations? Who knows?
But what’s with the world of Islam? Putting its house in order may be a tough call but the kings, emirs and other potentates with whom the world of Islam is stuffed can certainly put up a slightly better performance. Whether Bashar al-Assad is all evil or not is hardly the point. How do the US and its faithful poodle, Britain, with their record of double-speak and duplicity in Iraq (to mention nothing else) become the high priests of international morality?
Western public opinion is divided. Thank God for that. There has been a demonstration outside No 10 in London. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Americans are against the kind of intervention the Fox News crowd is rooting for. But what’s it like nearer home? Silence across the blessed world of Islam. How then can we blame foreigners for our troubles?
We seem to be caught in a time warp. Europe fought more terrible wars than we can imagine. But all that is over. France and Germany, sworn enemies for centuries, have made up with each other. It took two world wars to bring this about, but it has happened, Europe leaving the past behind and moving ahead. Even the cold war is over. A new cold war may be emerging but its intensity can never be the same because the Soviet Union, the other superpower, is gone.
The differences among Muslim states are not that acute. Franco-German hostility has no parallels in the world of Islam. Why then are we so helpless in managing our collective affairs?
Two reasons come to mind: (1) the failure of democracy to take root in the Muslim world; and (2) the insecurity which haunts the Land of Hejaz.
Secularism has failed, or hasn’t come of age, in the Muslim world. Democracy hasn’t become an acceptable form of government. Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq: all largely secular countries with social freedoms and respect for the rights of women, all engulfed by changes or hit by turmoil, leading to the shrinking of social frontiers. The failures of democracy are larger still, the souring of the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, a testimony to this.
And the House of Saud, because of its own insecurities, afraid of Shia Iran, opposed to Hezbollah, afraid of any outbreak of radicalism, and therefore willing to dip into its deep pockets and bankroll every reactionary undertaking in the Muslim world.
Internal weaknesses prevent the world of Islam from acting forcefully, or even with any sign of dignity, on the world stage. Western public opinion may rise up in protest against the Iraq war, but Arab and Muslim opinion is mostly quiet, or confined to watching Al-Jazeera and being consumed by rage from within. A vacuum is thus created and who fills it? Radical Islam and forces like Al-Qaeda, and then we moan about the wickedness of our circumstances.
Europe got over its religious wars long ago. When people my age were growing up there was no such thing as religious schism in the Islamic world. Sunnis were Sunnis and Shias practiced their own rituals but there were no religious wars. Now there are sectarian overtones to the battle-lines drawn over the Syrian conflict – a Sunni coalition on one side, a Shia lineup on the other. From where have these old demons arisen?
Pakistan after its inception was, for the most part, a benign and tolerant land. Political mistakes there were aplenty, the quest for nationhood being put in a very tight straitjacket, the very tightness of it leading to a reaction, once upon a time in East Pakistan, now, with an intensity never seen before, in Balochistan. But religious strife, the killing on the basis of sect, was no part of that earlier landscape. How different it is today, Pakistani sectarianism mirroring the larger sectarianism dividing the world of Islam.
What’s wrong with us? Why can’t we be masters of our own destiny? We believe, we really do, that we are the chosen of mankind, the salt of the earth. How little we have to show for our towering self-belief. We observe our rituals, and no one can say we are weak in their observance, and think that thereby salvation is ours. But the affairs of the world are in other hands and we are just second-class citizens…with great pretensions of course but very little relevance. No, the smell of Arab oil and the rustle of Arab Cheque books about define the frontiers of our relevance.
But the questions pile up. Why are we at odds with the times, so out of step with the modern world? What holds us back? Japan, reaching out to its destiny, embraced modernity. Russia at the gates of upheaval found Bolshevism and Lenin. China entered the modern age through its revolution and Mao. What are the prescriptions of radicalism that we discover? Al-Qaeda and the likes of Osama bin Laden. Luther in Germany, Hafiz Saeed in Pakistan. Isn’t there something seriously wrong with the world of Islam?