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Russia challenges US in the Islamic world
By M K Bhadrakumar
When US President George W Bush named Karachi-born Pakistani American Sada
Cumber as the first US envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC),
the White House announcement of February 27 almost passed off as pork-barrel
politics on the part of a lame-duck administration. Cumber is a Texan
entrepreneur - and so was Bush.
Cumber is founder of CACH Capital Management based in Austin, Texas, which is a
high-performance wealth management firm with acumen and expertise in rendering
advisory services to Muslim countries flushed with disposable petrodollar
sovereign wealth funds. But then wouldn't Bush know the OIC is not an
institution for investment selection and portfolio structure?
White House press secretary Dana Perino explained that Bush
considered the OIC to be an important organization and that's why he appointed
a special envoy. She said, "The [OIC] has a constructive role to play in the
world, and the president is signaling our desire to have a greater dialogue
with the organization as well as Muslims around the world." But the OIC has
been existence for 39 years - and Muslims for over a millennium. Why now?
In June last year Bush first articulated the thought of deputing an envoy to
the OIC. Why the delay? When the media asked Perino why Bush had taken so long,
she merely said, "He [Bush] wanted to find the right person and he found that
in Sada Cumber."
Islamic card in Kosovo
There is reason to believe, however, that it was in the month of February that
the Bush administration woke up to a new reality that cultivating the 57-member
OIC could indeed make all the difference in the years to come. Around that
time, Washington almost instinctively played the "Islamic card" against Moscow,
and found to its dismay that what used to be a highly dependable and potent
trump card in Cold War politics is no longer so, and, in fact, it turned out to
be a dud card.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov succinctly captured Washington's "OIC
heartache" when he commented in an interview with the government newspaper
Rossiskaya Gazeta, "It is not without meaning that many nations, including
Islamic states, do not intend to recognize Kosovo's independence."
With a touch of sarcasm, Lavrov underscored post-Soviet Russia's reversal of
roles with the US in the Muslim world. He added, "I would like to caution
against the temptation to succumb to exhortations that are coming from non-Arab
and non-Islamic countries but are addressed precisely to Islamic countries to
display Islamic solidarity and recognize Kosovo. For, the situation in Kosovo
is the most striking example of ethnic separatism."
He was cautioning the Islamic world to be wary of the US attempt to "Islamize"
the geopolitical setting in the Balkans. He warned, "Disturbances have also
begun in other regions of the world. To encourage separatist tendencies, I
believe, is immoral. You see what is happening in China's autonomous region of
Tibet, the way the separatists are acting there ... And then developments in
other parts of the world as well suggest that we see only the beginning of an
extremely explosive process. And those who follow this path should not call for
a show of solidarity, whether Islamic or Euro-Atlantic. They ought to think of
their responsibility in the first place."
Soon after his interview in Moscow, Lavrov set out on yet another extended tour
of the Middle East, but starting with the eleventh summit of the OIC at Dakar,
Senegal, on March 13, which was he attending as an "observer" for the second
time in a row.
Among the many laurels that Russian President Vladimir Putin gathers as his
eight-year tumultuous stewardship in the Kremlin draws to a close, it is often
overlooked that history will most certainly judge him as a great bridge-builder
between Russia and the Muslim world. Putin's achievement is extraordinary since
Russia had a complex, difficult and hugely controversial relationship with the
Islamic world for the better part of the last century.
To be sure, Putin's effective handling of the Chechnya problem helped remove a
potentially debilitating embarrassment with regard to the Muslim world. But
that shouldn't detract from the singular success of his policy in ensuring that
no adversary can today hope to get away with manipulating the Muslim world
against Moscow in "civilizational" terms in the fashion in which the West
managed to do through the Soviet era.
Russia, instead, today is well placed to offer its good offices to mediate a
dialogue of civilizations between the Christian West and the Islamic East. In
fact, Lavrov in his speech at the Dakar summit of the OIC drew the attention of
the Islamic world to the "situation of Muslims in the European countries and
the attempts by some politicians to stir up Islamophobia".
Religions as a panacea for conflicts
Being no longer a citadel of atheism has certainly helped the Kremlin. But it
is altogether a new level of exhilaration of the mind and intellect to be able
to transmute the newfound religious belief into a hardcore political agenda.
Lavrov went on the offensive at Dakar and assured the OIC that Russia is
determined to "make its major contribution to ensuring Europe's civilizational
compatibility and promoting tolerance, in particular towards different faiths".
He expressed hope that "a Christian Europe would have been able to find common
grounds with other religions more easily".
In a major political initiative at Dakar, Lavrov sought the support of the OIC
for a Russian proposal that an "advisory council of religions" should be set up
under the auspices of the United Nations, predicated on the estimation that
"the involvement of the religious factor could be of help in settling different
conflicts through strengthening confidence and concord of all parties based on
international law with full respect of the UN role in international affairs".
The proposal altogether elevates Moscow's two-year "dialogue" with the OIC
since it gained observer status in the organization to a qualitatively new
level. Moscow would know that Washington cannot match the Russian initiative,
but at the same time would be hard-pressed to oppose it. Washington's
predicament is that it has no effective way of countering Moscow's insistent
claim that as a multinational and multi-faith society with a centuries-old
history, "Russia is also a part of the Islamic world", to quote Lavrov.
Moscow identifies with Palestine
But it isn't a matter of oneupmanship. Russia currently enjoys several
advantages over the US. The entire regional scenario in the Middle East is
loaded against the US. The Bush administration is seen as primarily motivated
by Israeli interests. There is a pervasive trust deficit even among the old US
Israel-Palestine relations have deteriorated recently. The acute humanitarian
crisis has further deepened in Gaza, compounded by the mindless Israeli
military operations with tacit US support. The level of violence has increased
sharply since mid-January. The peace process of the Annapolis conference of
last November has run aground. The continued exclusion of Hamas by Israel and
the US as a full-fledged political participant makes nonsense of the peace
On all these fronts, Russia today happens to be standing on the right side of
the fence. Moscow has stepped up consultations and coordination with Syria; it
unequivocally condemns the construction of Jewish settlements; it seeks the
lifting of the Israeli blockade against the Palestinian territories; it keeps
in regular touch with the Hamas leadership - Lavrov again met Khaled Meshal in
Damascus last week, and, furthermore, he has got Israel to learn to live with
The resonance of Russia's Middle Eastern stances in Arab opinion is extremely
favorable for Moscow. Meanwhile, Iraq weighs around the American neck as an
albatross. Moscow has sized up that the US is bogged down in a protracted
guerrilla war in Iraq. As a Moscow commentator wrote recently, "The end of this
conflict is not in sight. Intensive mine warfare is being waged on Iraqi roads.
Not a single allied convoy passes without an explosion. Road mining has assumed
such a scale that the US Air Force is using its strategic B-1B bombers for
remote mine clearance. Weapons and ammunitions are freely crossing Iraq's
lengthy and difficult-to-control borders, while the continued occupation is
increasing the mobilization potential of the guerrilla movement."
Again, if three quarters of politics in the Middle East are about public
perceptions, it works to the advantage of Moscow when it
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