Of the 32 armed conflicts at the turn of this century, two-thirds involved Muslims. A decade down the line, the situation remains almost the same. Even worse, the “clash of civilisations” thesis presented by Bernard Lewis in 1964, amplified by Samuel Huntington (1993) and Osama bin Laden (9/11), is continuously invoked both by the crusaders and the jihadis.
Amid all the noise, it is never mentioned that Washington ‘s oldest ally in the Middle East is not Israel but Saudi Arabia . Since Roosevelt’s declaration in 1943, “the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the United States.” This policy, in 1957, translated into the Eisenhower Doctrine pledging direct US protection to any Gulf nation willing to acknowledge the “communist threat.” The doctrine was, in fact, equally aimed at Arab nationalism.
Eisenhower saw Gamal Abdel Nasser as a Soviet tool. Eisenhower later wrote: “To check any movement in this direction we wanted to explore the possibilities of building up King Saud as a counterweight to Nasser . The king was a logical choice in this regard: he at least professed anti-communism, and he enjoyed, on religious grounds, a high standing among all Arab nations.”
To save the Middle East from communism, Washington ‘s turn to “Political Islam” was a lesson learnt from British experience in the region. In August 1919, the British General Staff Intelligence Department in Egypt succeeded in obtaining from the grand mufti of Al Azhar, Shaikh Muhammad Bakhit, a fatwa against Bolshevism. The effect was directly contrary to what it had anticipated. Some newspapers, like the Ahali, a mouthpiece of the Fabian Salamah Musa, and the nationalist Wadi-en-Nil, attacked the fatwa and defended the Bolsheviks. The independent Al-Ahram published an interview of Lenin with a German journalist, giving his definitions of communism, which were taken by the reading public to be a refutation of the mufti.
Similarly, in Iraq during the unsettled years after the Wathbah of 1948 and the Intifadah of 1952, when the Iraqi Communist Party emerged as a mass party, the classes in authority tried to avail themselves of religion to stem the advance of communism. Significantly, the initiative came from the representatives of English power. P B Ray, an intelligence officer, wrote in a letter to the director of Iraq ‘s secret police dated April 20, 1949: “Communism will never be completely eradicated by what we may term ‘police methods’ alone.” Among the “corrective” methods recommended by Ray was what he called “the religious approach.” The great Arab historian, Hanna Batatu, remarks: “It was apparently in pursuit of this line that later – on Oct 6, 1953 – Sir John Troutbeck, the English ambassador to Iraq , made direct contact with the chief Shiite Mujtahid, Shaikh Muhammad Al-Hussein Kashif ul-Ghata. He visited the shaikh at his school in Najaf and discussed with him, as the shaikh subsequently put it, the matter of ‘the common enemy’... In the course of the conversation, the ambassador is said to have taken trouble to impress upon the shaikh that ‘the combating of communism is dependent upon the awakening of the ulema and the spiritual leaders, and their proper guidance in the schools and clubs.
While Britain sought local solutions to a regional threat, the United States , wisely enough, projected fundamentalism as a bulwark against communism across the Muslim world, as well as against Arab nationalism. Lebanese intellectual Gilbert Achcar aptly remarks: “The present strength of Islamic fundamentalism is a direct product of very direct US policies... Secular nationalism has been weakened and destroyed by the United States as its main enemy. In the 1960s, the dominant trend in the Muslim world in general was secular nationalism and, in the Arab world, Arab nationalism as embodied by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser The United States fought this brand of nationalism, basing itself on the most reactionary brand of Islamic fundamentalism implemented and propagated by the Saudi kingdom.”
Ironically, the Eisenhower Doctrine was put to test in Jordan first of all, where anti-US nationalists were brutally crushed, with the Muslim Brothers on the monarchy’s side, by King Hussein. Ever since, civil liberties have been curtailed in Jordan. Washington, however, applauded King Hussein’s “gallant fight to eject subversive elements from his country and government.”
To wrest Syria from Nasser ‘s embrace, the CIA gave a Syrian stooge £500,000 to organise a coup. British MI6 had its own plan, codenamed Straggle, to overthrow the nationalist government of Syria, which was then part of a federation with Egypt, called the United Arab Republic, a name which Egypt continued to use as its official title until the 1970s despite the break-up of the UAR. In the 1950s this federation was luring Lebanon and Yemen and nationalists in Iraq. Earlier, in 1951, the Iranian parliament had voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Shortly afterwards, Mohammad Mossadeq, the main architect of the nationalisation policy, was elected prime minister. The Eisenhower administration was suspicious of Mossadeq’s ties to Moscow, his association with the communist Tudeh Party and his attempts to undermine the Shah’s autocratic powers. Hence, he was overthrown in a coup in 1953 staged by the CIA. Ayotollah Kashani was siding with the coup plotters. For his services, the CIA operative in Iran dispatched a hefty sum of money to the Ayotollah’s home.
Hizbollah’s rise is often attributed to Iran. However, an equally important fact is that Israel, according to Achcar, “very deliberately disarmed all groups that were based on secular ideologies with a multireligious membership – communist or nationalist or other. And they didn’t disarm communalist groups, whether Shiite or Druze, not to mention their Christian allies...But they disarmed, of course, the PLO and the Lebanese left.”
The case of Al-Qaeda is too well-known to deserve space here. A symbiosis of US-Saudi-Pakistani spy agencies, Al-Qaeda was armed, trained and funded to counter the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Wikileaks’ revelations about a banquet Maulana Fazlur Rehman hosted for US ambassador Anne Patterson is hardly a leak. An ISI sleuth, Brigadier Tirmizi, in his memoir recalls that dollars were showered on the JUI leadership during the anti-Bhutto campaign while Jamaat-e-Islami activists were busy chanting “Long Live USA” outside the US Consulate in Lahore. The Jamaat’s tribute to the US consulate during the anti-Bhutto campaign was not a coincidence. Imperialism sponsored all the fundamentalists to counter the Bhuttos. Some, like Osama, turned out to be the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
The writer is a freelance contributor.
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