By Munir Akram
In the 14th and 15th centuries, Christian Europe was divided by the rivalries of the kingdoms of Spain, France and England, the Holy Roman Empire and the squabbling papal and city states of Italy.
They were unable to unite in halting the advance of the ascendant Ottomans who reached the gates of Vienna and were stopped there more by Sultan Suleiman’s demise rather than credible Christian resistance.
Today, the roles are reversed. It is the Muslim world which is unable to unite to fend off the domination of the West. The crisis between Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners is reminiscent of the rivalries of Italy’s Papal States and the role of external powers in determining the destiny of its weak rulers.
The Muslim world, wracked by multiple conflicts and crises, is traversing a period akin to Europe’s Dark Ages.
Today’s vulnerable Muslim world is wide open to the influence and domination of external powers.
First, in many Muslim countries, there is crisis of political legitimacy. Governance structures, mostly bequeathed by departing Western colonists, have corroded. The authoritarian regimes in the GCC and Iran were untouched by the Arab Spring; but most are vulnerable domestically to both democratic and ideological challenges. Egypt has reverted to military rule.
Turkey’s populist leader battles internal and external opposition. External intervention in Libya has yielded a civil war and the emergence of the militant Islamic State group and other terrorist groups. Similarly, Syria has been destroyed by external intervention and a brutal sectarian and ethnic civil war.
The fiction of Iraq’s unity is preserved by the presence of Iranian militias, US military support and the war against IS. The US-installed Afghan regime is weak, corrupt, divided, and militarily beleaguered. Ironically, among OIC members, Pakistan is one of the few which, despite corruption scandals, retains a modicum of democratic legitimacy.
Second, violence is spreading across the Muslim world. Global terrorist groups—IS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, etc.—are now active participants in civil and cross-border conflicts and pose a threat to global stability. Muslim nations are not the main sponsors of global terrorism; they are its principal victims. Some major powers have fought terrorists selectively and at times used them for partisan purposes.
No effort has been made to stop state terrorism or to differentiate between terrorists and insurgencies which, like the Afghan Taliban, have local, negotiable goals.
Most importantly, no concerted efforts have been made to address terrorism’s “root causes”: persistent injustices against the Muslim population, for example in Palestine and Kashmir, or poverty, ignorance and social alienation which create recruits for terrorism, including over the internet.
Third, the crises within the Muslim world have been exacerbated by ideological and doctrinal differences. The most vital schism is between Sunni and Shia power. This schism was dormant until Iran’s 1979 “Islamic Revolution”. It rose to the fore in the Iraq-Iran war. It was manifest in the Afghan civil war between the Afghan Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
It was, however, the US invasion of Iraq, its dismantling of the Sunni-dominated Baath party and army and the organisation of one-man one-vote elections that enabled the Iran-sponsored Shia parties to gain central power in Iraq and extend Iranian influence across the Levant and beyond.
Iran’s rise is anathema to its Sunni rivals: Saudi Arabia, the GCC and Egypt. Turkey has also been uncomfortable; although it has been obliged recently to moderate its rivalry and secure Tehran’s cooperation to forestall Kurdish separatism.
Pakistan’s once close ties with Iran also deteriorated over time due to multiple reasons: Islamabad’s termination of peaceful nuclear cooperation, competition for influence in post-Soviet Afghanistan, Iranian “interference” with Pakistan’s Shia community, cross-border events in Iranian and Pakistani Balochistan and Iran’s sudden reversal of support on Kashmir in response to Indian “incentives”.
But the sectarian divide is not the sole ideological rift within the Muslim world today. The Muslim Brotherhood and its populist ideology have become abhorrent to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.
Hamas, the Palestinian affiliate of the Brotherhood, has suffered collateral damage. On the other hand, Qatar and Turkey have espoused the Brotherhood and Hamas, offered refuge to their adherents and support to them in the Libyan civil war. Such Qatari divergence was evidently the main reason for the Saudi-UAE break with Doha.
Last, but not least, today’s weak, vulnerable Islamic world is wide open to the influence and domination of major external powers. The recent Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh was, more than anything, an illustration of the susceptibility of most of the assembled Muslim nations to US domination. Russia also enjoys critical influence with several Muslim countries, including Iran and Turkey, due to its military power and growing role in Syria and the region.
So far, China has remained aloof from inter-Islamic differences. Its desire seems to be to use its economic and financial power as a force for greater cohesion with Muslim countries.
What seems most dangerous for the immediate future is the hard-line positions being adopted by the Trump administration on most international disputes and crises, including North Korea, South China Sea, Syria and Iran. If implemented, these positions, particularly the formation of an alliance against Iran, are likely to lead to the intensification of the conflicts affecting the Muslim world.
Today, more than ever, Muslim countries are obliged to play an active role to develop viable avenues for conflict resolution and cooperation among the Islamic nations and, hopefully, lead the way to a new age of enlightenment in the Muslim world.
Munir Akram is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.