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December 6, 2010

The myth of Islamic unity


December 6, 2010

Byron believed that were things called by their right names, even Caesar would be ashamed of unmerited fame and glory. But such aphorisms make little difference to those with no shame. Documents have emerged from the arcane world of diplomacy, courtesy Wikileaks, revealing the devious extent to which those at the helm in Pakistan, as indeed in other countries, can stoop to pursue political ambitions or, at best, promote narrow national interests.
One aspect of the Wikileaks disclosures that has not been extensively examined by the print and electronic media in Pakistan is the documentary confirmation that the existence of an Islamic Ummah is a myth. Muslim countries refer to each other as “brothers” but this fraternity is one that resembles the relationship between Cain and Abel. Thus Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich midget states of the Gulf region are on the same page as Israel in urging the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities. The latter, for its part, is certainly no innocent victim of an international conspiracy. On the contrary it has sought to export the extremist ideology of the 1979 Ayatollah-led revolution to neighbouring Islamic countries even if that should entail the destabilisation of their governments.
Furthermore, the Wikileaks revelations have administered a crippling blow to Samuel P Huntington’s fanciful clash of civilisations theory in which it was envisaged that the “fault-lines between civilisations” would replace “the political and ideological boundaries of the Cold War as the flashpoints for future crisis and bloodshed.” More specifically, he quoted M J Akbar of India who believed: “The West’s next confrontation is definitely going to come from the Islamic world. It is the sweep of Islamic nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan that the struggle for the new world order will begin.” However, such a conflict was never likely because there is no such entity as an Islamic bloc. The Muslim world was never a unified

monolith. Closer to the truth is that it is a house divided against itself.
Spanning as it does over two continents in an unbroken stretch of geography from Morocco in the west to Pakistan and then continuing further east to include Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, the Islamic world is characterised by political divergence. It consists of both monarchies and republics spread over fifty-seven countries in which more than 1.5 billion people and 190 ethnic groups live.
The Muslim world will continue to play a vital role in global politics for two fundamental reasons. First, it possesses 55 per cent of the earth’s proven oil reserves. Europe, for instance, is dependent on the Gulf for 75 per cent of its oil requirements while Japan imports 90 per cent of its petroleum from the region (thus it contributed US $12 billion towards the Gulf War). Secondly, it straddles the major choke points and sea lanes of the world, i.e., the Strait of Gibraltar, the Bosphorus, the Dardanelles, the Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Whereas oil is an expendable commodity and, as such, will eventually cease to be relevant to the geopolitics of the area, the strategic location of the Muslim world has been and will continue to be the cause for future rivalry among the global powers.
The Gulf region is considered to be the symbolic centre of the Muslim world. It is a bridge between Europe, Africa and Asia. It also is one of the most volatile and violence-ridden areas of the globe. Wars and terrorism have claimed more than 2 million lives in the region since 1980. Approximately one hundred thousand people died in the five wars between Israel and its Arab neighbours in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982. The Arab-Israeli conflict was not the only reason for tension in the region. In large measure it was also due to inter-Arab rivalry. Syria invaded Jordan in 1970; Iraq attacked Iran in 1980; Iraq intruded into Kuwait in 1990; Syria occupied Lebanon in 1976 while North and South Yemen fought a decade-long civil war. Statistics show that more than ten times as many people have been killed in inter-Arab conflagrations than in the Arab-Israeli wars.
After Saddam Hussain’s ouster, the threat perception of the GCC states has shifted from Iraq and is now focussed on Iran. Tehran has more potential than any other nation to be the dominant regional power. With a population of 60 million, 10 per cent of the world’s oil reserves, and a modern technological infrastructure it has more military and economic muscle in the Middle East than any other country except Turkey. It has an army of almost one million and has acquired a substantial quantity of military hardware particularly from Russia and China. Its nuclear programme has added to the nervousness of the neighbouring Arab countries and hence their eagerness for the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Towards the end of 1993, Yitzak Rabin, observed that Iran’s tactics were ominously similar to those of the Soviet Union’s Comintern before World War II: “Rather than openly supporting pro-Iranian movements in the target nations it seeks to dominate, it supports nationalist opposition movements that advocate its brand of extreme Islamic fundamentalism, just as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union supported indigenous communist parties in non-communist nations.” He elaborated that this allows an Egyptian, for example, to be an “Iranian-oriented Muslim fundamentalist” and a loyal Egyptian at the same time, just as members of the Soviet-controlled indigenous communist parties in the West during the Cold War could be communists without being openly disloyal to their own countries but nevertheless posing a serious threat to their respective governments.
It is against this background that several Arab countries established contacts with Israel. Though Egypt and Israel have had full diplomatic relations after the Camp David Accords, it was in 1994 that Arab countries made overtures towards Israel. In September of that year GCC member states ended their secondary and tertiary economic boycotts of Israel; on 26 October Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty and established diplomatic relations the following month; on November 1 Morocco and Israel opened liaison offices; in December Tunisia and Israel opened interest sections in the Belgian embassies in their respective capitals; on December 26 Yitzak Rabin paid an official visit to Oman.
The security perspectives of the Islamic world in the emerging post-Cold War system will be shaped by rivalries and suspicions among Muslim countries. External powers will interfere, as is evident from recent events, to protect their economic interests and strategic goals as a consequence of which Islamic unity will remain a myth.
The writer is the publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: [email protected]

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