Middle East

Remaking the Muslim Middle East
By Ahmad Faruqui

During last Ramadan, a major battle raged in Afghanistan between the armies of the United States and the Taliban. War historian Elliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University called it the first in a series that would constitute the next world war. Thus, as this Ramadan draws to a close, we are about to witness another campaign involving this time the forces of the US and Iraq. This may be followed in subsequent years by campaigns against the forces of Iran, Syria and Libya, according to neo-conservative writer Norman Podhoretz. Podhoretz does not want Washington to stop with regime changes, but to bring about "the long-overdue internal reform and modernization of Islam".

The struggle for mastery of the Muslim Middle East, which contains 70 percent of the world's oil reserves, has entered a new stage. On one side are the Muslim militants who have three primary objectives: first, to contain Israeli expansion into the West Bank and Gaza; second, to force the US to remove its military forces from the Middle East; and, third, to depose the tyrannical monarchs and corrupt despots who hold sway in the region. Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and numerous other groups are united in their pursuit of these objectives. Taking an extreme interpretation of their religious texts, they have resorted to committing horrific acts of mass murder to further their cause.

On the other side is Washington, with its stated objective of remaking the region in the mold of Woodrow Wilson. The National Security Strategy document issued by the White House in September 2002 says that the US will "wage a war of ideas to win the battle against international terrorism", and that it will support "moderate and modern government, especially in the Muslim world, to ensure that the conditions and ideologies that promote terrorism do not find fertile ground in any nation". In this fight, Washington is strongly supported by London. At the recent NATO summit in Prague, President George W Bush sought to actively recruit other Western and East European powers to join this cause.

Ironically, the terrorists and Washington are ultimately fighting a common enemy: the governments of the Middle East. Caught in the crosshairs of this conflict are the pro-Western governments of Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf Kingdoms, Tunisia and Yemen. If they side openly with Washington, they are likely to be labeled American puppets and face serious internal pressures. If they don't cooperate with the US, they could be accused of being in the terrorist camp and be subjected to sanctions and possibly military attack.

The people who live in the region, caught in the ensuing game of cat and mouse, have become spectators in the fight. Over time, as Israeli military atrocities continue in the occupied territories and as the US gears up to attack Iraq, the street sentiment in the Muslim world has begun to shift in an anti-American direction. The rising tide of anti-Americanism is a major worry to policymakers in Washington. Hani Hourani, director of the New Jordan think tank, was recently quoted as saying that anti-American anger now permeates the Muslim Middle East, with low-level government officials now talking the same language as the militant Muslims.

And it is no longer confined to the Arab world. Elections in Turkey, a member of NATO and an historical ally of Israel in the Middle East, have granted an absolute majority to a party with Islamist ties. Dr Abdullah Gul, the new prime minister, has served as an economist with the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank. In a break with their lackluster performance in past elections, an alliance of religious parties in Pakistan, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), has won the third-largest number of seats in the National Assembly. Their candidate for prime minister secured the second-highest number of seats in the National Assembly. The MMA is expected to form provincial governments in the two provinces that border Afghanistan, and have a vocal presence in the National Assembly. Their leadership is calling for the withdrawal of American forces from Pakistan. There have been large-scale protests in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, at the arrest of a cleric under charges related to the Bali bombings.

While Washington talks about the need to diminish the underlying conditions that spawn terrorism, its actions may unfortunately promote anti-Americanism. In the words of a British field marshal, an attack on Iraq is likely to "add petrol to the fire". The Bush administration has suggested that the terrorists are motivated by anger directed at the US, because it is a wealthy nation and because it promotes freedom and liberty. The terrorists are viewed as embittered enemies against whom conventional deterrence cannot be effective. Such an explanation is incomplete and misleading. The major reason that terrorists have struck a responsive chord with ordinary person in the Muslim world is that in they have pointed out the double standards in US foreign policy.

Double standards
In the eyes of the ordinary American, the US should be the most admired nation in the Muslim world. After all, it wants to bring the ideals of Wilsonian liberalism to the Muslim world: peace, democracy and free markets. While the US strategy toward the Muslim world is indeed founded on these ideals, what has led to rampant anti-Americanism are the double standards that have attended its implementation.

First, there is a double standard in removing weapons of mass destruction. The US has not questioned Israel's right to have them, because in its view, Israel would only use them in justifiable self-defense.

Second, there is a double standard in following UN Security Council resolutions. There is no pressure on Israel to implement Resolution 242 of 1967. The US had implicitly legitimized Israel's illegal 35-year occupation of the Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza, since it has a right to have safe and secure borders while other nations that invade their neighbors have to withdraw immediately. Within a few months of occupying Kuwait, Iraq was attacked by a coalition of forces led by the US. But Israel spent 18 years in Lebanon without inviting much American rebuke until it was forced to withdraw by the attacks of the Hezbollah.

When the Israeli Air Force attacked an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 487. The resolution condemned Israel for the attack, and noted that Iraq had applied IAEA safeguards satisfactorily. It opined that Israel should pay compensation to Iraq, and called "upon Israel urgently to place its nuclear facilities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency". This is unlikely to happen any time in the foreseeable future, since the US will not place any pressure on the UN to get Israel to comply with this resolution.

Third, there is a double standard in promoting democracy. Most of the repressive regimes in the Muslim world - the Gulf Kingdoms, Egypt and Jordan - are propped up by the US. In the early 1990s, when the FIS Islamist party in Algeria won the national elections, it was banned because the US suspected that it would hold no further elections. A few years ago, an Islamist Prime Minister in Turkey was removed from office and his party banned by the US-backed Turkish military. The democratically elected government in Tehran is viewed with suspicion because it pursues an independent foreign policy.

Lastly, there is a double standard in minimizing civilian casualties during wartime. While American casualties are minimized, those of the enemy are potentially maximized. American tactics during the first Gulf War, the air campaign in Kosovo and the war in Afghanistan show how far the Pentagon has optimized high-altitude bombing tactics. Once hostilities commence, Stealth fighters take out enemy air defenses, followed by B-2 Stealth bomber raids on key enemy command and control centers. Then special operations forces on the ground draw in B-52s armed with laser-guided weapons to take out troop formations and other strategic targets. At all times, the Predator unmanned aerial vehicles provides invaluable field intelligence for spotting targets, and it has recently demonstrated its capability in Yemen to take out otherwise elusive targets.

Regardless of the high technology that is embodied in lethal weaponry, the level of precision is only as good as the level of intelligence on the ground. Civilian deaths on the enemy side are inevitable. Initially, the Pentagon will not acknowledge them. When they become only too visible, such as the wedding party in Afghanistan, a comment is made that enemy militants were using civilians as shields in terms only too reminiscent of Sharon's forces in the West Bank. Finally, when public outcry begins to demand an apology, a statement is issued blaming the enemy's leadership for all such casualties, since the US does not target civilians.

All of this boils down to the following American dictum: if you toe our line, you will be handsomely rewarded - regardless of whether you are a democracy, possess weapons of mass destruction or follow UN resolutions. If you do not toe our line, you will be attacked and eliminated. While such edicts have frightened governments of all but a handful of nations into subservience, they have emboldened Muslim militants to commit their terrorist attacks.

As expected, their acts of mass murder on American soil - carried out in the name of Islam - have galvanized anti-Muslim forces in the US. A triangular coalition of forces has emerged, involving evangelical Christians, neo-conservatives and militants Jews.

An emerging coalition
Members of the coalition have now developed a common platform, which argues that terrorism is not confined to extremist elements within the Muslim world, but is a logical outgrowth of the teachings of the Islamic faith. Some of these ideologues have said the actions of the terrorists are a confirmation of the Clash of Civilizations predicted by Harvard's Samuel Huntington. Others have posited that what we are witnessing is a clash within Islam itself, between the moderates and the extremists. Either argument is designed to put the Muslim world on the defensive.

Ministers and pastors of the religious right have begun to stigmatize Islam, attacking everything that Muslims hold sacred and dear. The conservative Baptist minister Reverend Jerry Falwell has reviled Prophet Mohammed by calling him a terrorist and a violent man. "Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses," Falwell said. "I think Mohammed set an opposite example."

Reverend Franklin Graham - the son of Billy Graham who leads 55 million evangelical Christians - gave the benediction at George W. Bush's inauguration. He called the Islamic religion "wicked, violent and not of the same God" on the first of Ramadan and alleged that the Koran instructs the killing of infidels. Asked by NBC News to clarify his statement, Graham repeated his charge that Islam is evil. "It wasn't Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn't Lutherans," said Graham. "It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith."

In a similar vein, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson has described Islam on his "700 Club" television program as a violent religion that wants to "dominate and then, if need be, destroy". According to Robertson, "the Koran makes it very clear, if you see an infidel, you are to kill him." Thus, Islam "is not a peaceful religion that wants to coexist". In his opinion, Muslims want to coexist until they can control, dominate and then, if need be, destroy.

Some have called Islam an evil religion while others have called it an occult religion. Some have suggested that Allah is not the God of the Christians and Jews, forgetting that Arab Christians and Muslims both use the word Allah, which means God in Arabic.

In June, Rev Jerry Vines, a former Southern Baptist convention president and pastor of a church in Florida, told guests at a pastors' conference that many of America's problems can be blamed on religious pluralism. Pluralists "would have us to believe that Islam is just as good as Christianity, but I'm here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that Islam is not just as good as Christianity". In a November 10 broadcast, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart called for the expulsion of all foreign Muslim university students in the United States and for profiling of airline passengers "with a diaper on their head and a fan-belt around their waist". Of American Muslims, Swaggart said: "We ought to tell every other Muslim living in this nation that if you say one word, you're gone."

Such rantings are not confined to evangelical Christians. Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, an organization devoted to strengthening links between the US and Israel, has called Islam a religion with nothing functional to offer. Writing in The Jerusalem Post in May 2000, Pipes said, "The Koran is a not 'a product of Mohammed or even of Arabia', but a collection of earlier Judeo-Christian liturgical materials stitched together to meet the needs of a later age ... A few scholars go even further, doubting even the existence of Mohammed." In the November issue of Commentary, Pipes dismisses assertions by US academics that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that "jihad may likewise include defensive engagements, but this meaning is itself secondary to lofty notions of moral self-improvement". In his opinion, Osama bin Laden and other self-proclaimed jihadis understand jihad in keeping with its practice through 14 centuries of Islamic history.

Pipes, who has now found praise for his views on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, argues that Muslims have a legal compulsion to expand the territories ruled by Muslims at the expense of non-Muslims. He says their goal is "nothing less than to achieve Muslim domination over the entire world."

The common theme of these critics is that Muslim armies spread Islam by the sword. They ignore the barbarism that was displayed by Christian armies during the Crusades to retake Jerusalem, or the cruelty with which the Spanish Inquisition treated the Muslims and Jews of Spain. The neo-conservatives overlook the fact that Islam arrived in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines through commerce and trade, not war.

The utterances of the ideologues of the triangular coalition, however ill informed they might be, have poisoned the minds of many Americans about the Muslim world. A US poll conducted a few months ago found that, White House denials to the contrary, a third of all Americans now view the entire Muslim world as their enemy.

The coming war
The Muslim world has now resigned itself to the inevitability of a US-led invasion of Iraq. It is no wonder that Arab writers such as Saudi academic Yusif Makki see a sinister motive behind the coming US attack on Iraq. He considers this conflict, and the ongoing conflict in Palestine, "nothing less than a continuation of the Crusades the west launched against the Arab world centuries ago."

When attempts to link Saddam Hussein with the terrorist attacks of September 11 failed, the pundits in Washington began to talk about the need to prevent him from arming al-Qaeda with a nuclear bomb, a weapon he does not even have in his arsenal. Arab apologists such as Fouad Ajami acknowledge that even though there is no ideological affinity between the secular Saddam and the Wahhabi bin Laden, they share a common goal: the destruction of America. That is sufficient cause for seeking their elimination.

Playing on this psychology of fear, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has argued that there is no need to wait for a smoking gun connecting Saddam with Osama, since one is morally bound to "connect the dots before something happens". If the UN inspectors do not find something in Iraq, it is because Saddam has outwitted them. If they do find something, he is a liar. In either case, he is culpable and should be removed from power. Very much aware that should the UN not authorize military action, the US would be happy to disarm Saddam unilaterally, Kofi Annan has chided the US for having "a lower threshold" for going to war in Iraq than other members of the Security Council.

Rumsfeld has said that no decision has yet been taken for proceeding with an attack on Iraq. This is a significant change in the Pentagon's rhetoric. Just a few months ago, the official line was that the president had no war plans on his desk. General Tommy Franks has now presented a war plan involving about 250,000 US troops, according to the New York Times, with hostilities to commence no later than February. Former Secretary of State George Schultz, whose words are regarded as "tracer fire" by US journalists, has said that he would be surprised if military action had not commenced by the end of January.

In a widely read political cartoon script, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer is asked whether Iraq really poses a serious threat to the US. After all, it has not been able to shoot down a single US warplane after 11 years of around-the-clock practice. While he waits to respond, one of the members of the press corps chimes in: "Maybe we should ask one of our fliers to fly slower." Another chimes in: "Yea, let's ask him to cut off his engines." Finally, a third one says: "That's right. Then we will have our provocation."

Conservative activist Pat Buchanan cites an account of a disturbing conversation between Congressman Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House International Affairs Committee, and Colette Avital, a visiting Knesset member. Lantos gave this assurance to Avital: "My dear Collette, don't worry. You won't have any problem with Saddam. We'll be rid of the bastard soon enough. And in his place we'll install a pro-Western dictator, who will be good for you and good for us."

This "pro-Western dictator," said Lantos, will rule for "five or six years," and "after America gets rid of all the regimes of evil, it will go straight to Syria and tell young Assad that's what will happen to him if he doesn't stop supporting terrorism."

Rumsfeld has discounted concerns that the war with Iraq would lead to a world war by saying it would take no longer than "five days, five weeks or five months". However, many analysts fear that the war could easily become a great war. As it listens to the neo-conservatives calling for a great war to remake the Muslim Middle East, Washington would be well advised to heed the words of British historian A J P Taylor, "Though the object of being a Great Power is to be able to fight a Great War, the only way of remaining a Great Power is not to fight one."

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Nov 29, 2002

The cultivation of Middle Eastern democracy (Nov 7, '02)


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