By Mohammad Ahmad
Sept 08, 2013
The west must rethink its relationship with Saudi Arabia, have a more balanced approach towards Israel, and start afresh by befriending the people of the Muslim states if we are to have a safer world
The phenomenal rise of political expression of the so-called ideology wrongly referred to as Islamic fundamentalism has its roots in a number of factors, most revolving around the west’s appeasement of religious clergy in Muslim states. To appeal to public emotion, the pseudo-religious extremists wrongly labelled as fundamentalists present their actions as a reaction to the forces of unrest unleashed by the west, and in this context point to the behaviour of the US government on issues of interest to Muslims. They intentionally do not explain their inability to outdo the liberals in the 1950s and 1960s although these forces of unrest existed even in those times while the people of the Muslim world were aligned with the liberals.
Excluding Saudi Arabia, which is an exception; Turkey, Iran, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and even Pakistan were progressive nations. It is very unfortunate that at that point in time rather than embracing the liberals as partners, the west, perceiving the nationalist liberals as a threat being aligned with the then Soviet Union, made a wrong choice in choosing allies and embarked upon the policy of appeasement of the pseudo-religious forces. The west failed to realise that the nationalists sided with the Soviet Union by default as they were never offered a hand of friendship due to their opposition to the western tilt towards Israel. This was the prime cause for their anti-US sentiment and could have been easily neutralised had the west adopted a more balanced policy on Israel. The following historical events will explain this conclusion.
In 1951, the Iranian parliament had voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Shortly afterwards, Mohammad Mosadeq, the main architect of nationalization, was elected prime minister. The US administration was suspicious of Mosadeq’s ties to Moscow. Thus he was overthrown in a coup with Ayotollah Kashani siding with the coup plotters.
In Jordan, nationalists were brutally crushed by King Hussein and civil liberties were curtailed. Not surprisingly, Eisenhower applauded Hussein’s action as a “gallant fight to eject subversive elements from Jordan.”
In 1952, Egyptian military officers with Muhammad Naguib as their official leader, seized control of the government in a nearly bloodless coup. Monarchy was abolished. They promised to stamp out corruption, compel Britain to withdraw from Egypt, and restore the nation’s dignity. In 1954, Nasser emerged as a public leader and his Pan-Arab philosophy (anti-Zionism, social justice and neutrality) was to shape up finally by 1956. In 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) failed in their plotted assassination of the Egyptian strongman Nasser. Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of the Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan al-Banna, fled to Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, Ramadan was a part of the Princeton Islam Seminar Delegation at the White House in July 1953. He and other MB conspirators were charged with treason and stripped of their Egyptian citizenship. Jordan gave him a diplomatic passport and sent him to West Germany as Ambassador-at-large. Ramadan eventually received asylum in Switzerland.
These nationalist movements were always considered a threat and covert assistance to counter them was in always on the table. To provide overt support as well, in 1957, US President Eisenhower pleaded to Congress for a resolution authorising him to pledge increased military and economic aid, even direct US protection, to any Gulf nation willing to acknowledge the communist threat. A couple of months later Congress passed the resolution commonly known as the Eisenhower Doctrine to save the Middle East from communism.
To check the growth of Arab nationalism, Washington explored the possibilities of building up King Saud as a counterweight to Nasser. The king obliged. King Saud visited Iraq, then a kingdom, and both monarchs agreed to forget past enmities to counter Nasser. On his return from a visit to the US, the Saudis extended the rent-free lease of Dhahran base for another five years. This relationship, developed with myopic vision, later proved the prime factor in the rise of extremist activity in the Muslim world. The stranglehold of the Salafi doctrine on the affairs of the kingdom was never given due weight when the strategic decision to promote Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Muslim world was taken. The militant supporters of this doctrine were to later form the backbone of radicalism in the world.
In February 1958, Syria and Egypt announced the formation of a federation. Yemen and Lebanon also showed interest to join. But the federation came to an end abruptly, shattering the nationalist dream of Arab unity.
In July 1958, military officers led by Abd al-Karim Qasim seized power and declared Iraq a republic. Previously, the Intifada of 1952 had made the Communist Party emerge as a mass party and to counter it the west invoked religion to stem the advance of communism. Resultantly, in 1953, Sir John Troutbeck, the British ambassador to Iraq, made direct contact with the chief Mujtahid there in 1953 and impressed upon the sheikh that combating communism was dependent upon the awakening of the clergy and the spiritual leaders. Soon after the revolution, a factional fight and a propaganda war against Cairo broke out. Nasserites led by Abdul Salam Aref attempted a coup. Pro-Qasim troops, aided by the communists, defeated the coup. In 1963, the Baathists captured power in a coup. In collaboration with the CIA, these Baathists killed many communists but were surprisingly not at all interested in any union with Syria, which too had the same pan-Arabian philosophy. In Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, mosques that are in essence sacred places for worship, were made rallying places for moves against the nationalists. This created the opportunity for the clergy to get involved in political affairs and from there started the policy of their appeasement as allies against communism.
In Pakistan, until 1977 the extremists had never tasted power. The people spoke through the general elections of 1970 and brought progressives into power. The then Pakistani prime minister Z A Bhutto took some decisions that were perhaps not in conformity with the desires of those who wanted to see the region differently. The result was the coup of General Ziaul Haq. The general was supported by the US and later the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made him even dearer in the US’s proxy war. The general opened the gates to Saudi influence on all sectors, renamed Pakistan’s third largest city after its ruler and allowed that country to funnel money to charities and religious schools of its liking. The Salafi doctrine started taking effect and society started on a path to extremism. Despite that and after decades of assistance, the religious parties have failed to get the popular support of the people in any election.
The defeat of the Communists in Afghanistan left a destroyed country and the US washed its hands of any responsibility. It was in this vacuum that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban emerged as dominant players. It is ironic that the man who had little to do with the victory over the Soviets would come to personify the power of the so-called holy war unleashed on the world. More recently, the fall of the nationalists in the Arab world created a power vacuum that was filled by the only organised political force available, the so-called Islamic parties that survived through covert and overt assistance from the US and its erstwhile ally Saudi Arabia. What may happen in Syria is a cause of immediate worry for all. The Syrian government’s handling of the Saudi-backed rebels has been highly unprofessional. Any western military intervention though would prove counter-productive as the sudden fall of the Assad government will pave the way for the Salafi-led rebel alliance to take hold of Syria. The rebel alliance is dear to al Qaeda and after Yemen; Syria would then become their new base. The Assad government needs to be engaged to open up to pluralistic democracy. The Syrian people will respond with a sane choice. Trust them.
The people of Muslim states are progressives as all other human beings are. The pseudo-religious forces in Muslim countries remain marginalised when viable alternatives are available. The extremist forces only fill the vacuum created by systematic weakening of the liberal forces that was brought about in the past to defeat the communists. The west must acknowledge its mistake, rethink its relationship with Saudi Arabia, have a more balanced approach towards Israel, and start afresh by befriending the people of the Muslim states if we are to have a safer world.