Cautious in West Asia

Print edition : October 13, 2001

Amidst fears of enraging its peoples, Arab governments take a cautious approach while endorsing and joining the United States-initiated multi-pronged War against Terrorism. They are, so to say, in the coalition but out of it.

THE initial reaction in the Arab world to the events of September 11 could perhaps be best described as one of horror not unlaced with a measure of satisfaction at what was perceived as a retributive aspect of the attacks. As time passed, the horror was displaced by the angst fuelled by the recrudescence of old grievances and the infliction of new wounds. With the United States actually launching its aerial attacks on the night of October 7, a certain tenseness had been added to the sullenness on the Arab street.

Arab governments were extremely wary in their initial reactions. Iraq termed the attacks as unacceptable and wondered whether the Bush administration was setting a mode for its international operations by attributing terrorism to a state and then attacking it. Such a method would only increase instability in the world, President Saddam Hussein warned in a statement. Other Arab governments, including those friendly to the U.S., were vexed that the attacks had been launched unilaterally by the U.S. and without awaiting a global consensus on what terrorism was and what precisely should be the target for joint action.

An anti-war rally at Berkeley, California.-SWIFT THOR/GAMMA

What could however prove far more incendiary was the telecast of the statements made by Osama bin Laden and his cohorts in Al Qaeda by All Jazeera, the Qatari television network. Bin Laden tried to put out that his enmity towards the U.S. was on account of Washington having based troops on Saudi soil and for its unstinted support to Israel. But moderate Arab governments were also subjected to Osama's verbal assault. He called them hypocrites, even apostates, for their failure to stand up to Israel and the U.S. and for expressing grief at the deaths in the U.S. in the September 11 attack, while remaining silent about deaths in Iraq and Palestine.

However, there was a subliminal text to bin Laden's message that could prove even more troublesome in future. Without his having to say so directly, Osama conjured up a comparison between the condition of the world today and the condition the Arabian peninsula was in just before the advent of Islam. Now, as then, he implied, oppression, corruption and despotism were rampant and it took a vanguard of the faithful to rid the peninsula of this state of jahilliya. If bin Laden were to attain the martyrdom that he seeks in the U.S. strikes, this message could reverberate for some time to come.

Until the October 7 strikes, Arab governments agreed in principle that terrorism must be fought but were ambivalent about the precise contribution they must make. Despite having four aircraft carrier battle groups and a host of other troops earmarked for the military operations, the U.S. needed the use of bases that have been provided to them by the states of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) over the decade since the Gulf War. Oman, Bahrain and Qatar did not appear to have serious objection to the use of the bases on their soil. But Saudi Arabia was not inclined to accede to the U.S. request for the use of a sophisticated command and control centre that has been set up in the kingdom. None of the Arab states had been asked to make any military contributions but Egypt nevertheless felt it necessary to state categorically that it would not be involved militarily.

There were certain measures that the Arab governments felt they could take without excessive consideration. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the only two states besides Pakistan that had officially recognised the Taliban regime, broke off diplomatic relations with the government in Kabul. They could see that the Taliban was a failed enterprise and that they would only stand to lose if they continued to support it. Derecognising the Taliban was one thing, supporting military action against it or Al Qaeda another. All the major Arab governments insisted that they be given proof that would establish the involvement of bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the September 11 attacks. They also pleaded, with little hope of success, that military action launched in Afghanistan be undertaken under the aegis of the United Nations.

Saudi Arabia and the other five member-states of the GCC also signed on to another aspect of the campaign against terrorism. They agreed to monitor and clamp down on the sources of funding for terrorist organisations. However, the Saudis were also quick to point to their limitations in this respect. Given their special position in the Islamic world, they could not interdict the flow of funds into various charities. Since they could also not exercise any control over how these charities expended their funds, except in the inconceivable circumstance that these funds directly financed terrorist activity, their cooperation on the financial front might not amount to very much.

In a bid to win over Arab sentiment, the U.S. administration let it be known that it had been preparing to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state even before the September 11 attacks. They also revealed that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had been preparing to present a road-map for West Asian peace at the U.N. General Assembly session before the terror attacks forced its postponement. These news leaks came after Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had met and agreed to enforce a ceasefire. While the Bush administration may have calculated that it would gain favour in the Arab world by this show of exerting pressure on Israel, the facts on the ground did not work in its favour. The ceasefire agreement remained essentially on paper as clashes continued in the territories and Palestinians continued to die in far greater numbers than Israelis.

Besides the fact that southwestern Asia is well beyond the range within which the Arab states can exercise their military power, there were several other reasons behind the hesitancy to get too closely involved in the campaign. For one, the Arab states were well aware of the demands being voiced in certain sections of the U.S. administration and the intelligentsia, most prominently by Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, that the current campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban should be extended to cover those regimes that figure on the U.S. list of "rogue states". Iraq would have been a prime candidate in such an extended campaign. Syria, Iran, Libya and Sudan are still on the list of rogue states. There was a risk that the U.S., suddenly becoming over-enthusiastic about tackling the menace of global terrorism, would extend its campaign to cover these states as well if the rest of the Arab world gave the impression that it was giving a blank cheque. Perhaps these fears were exaggerated, but there was no willingness to gamble on a U.S. administration that switched rapidly between non-engagement and excessive engagement.

There were also unanswered questions about the movements that the U.S. could target in the secondary or tertiary phases of what the Bush administration has promised will be a long-drawn-out struggle against terrorism. After all, movements such as Hamas and the Islamic Jehad in Palestine and the Hizbollah in Lebanon are prominent entries in the U.S. list of terrorist organisations. While moderate Arab governments might disagree with the ultimate political agenda of these movements - to set up Islamic regimes in their territories for instance - they do not view these organisations as being involved in terrorism. It is a consensual view in the Arab world that the Palestinian groups and Hizbollah are engaged in a struggle against foreign occupation.

Arab governments were determined to ensure that the distinction between terrorist organisations and movements for national liberation must be retained. Incidentally, the Arab governments seemed to draw a distinction between national liberation movements in the Arab world and movements elsewhere - such as in Chechnya, the Philippines or Kashmir - which they might have once been inclined to dub also as national libeiberation struggles. It is still not clear whether this distinction would be retained in the long run or whether the Arab governments were trying to cope with one of the exigencies of the current situation. But if the Arab governments were, even if temporarily, suppressing their sympathies for struggles involving Muslims elsewhere, it only served to highlight the uncertainties and anxieties that these governments were trying to cope with.

The hesitation to join a campaign which does not have a well-defined objective had to be read in the context of the definition that the U.S. had until now given to the term terrorism in operative terms. Until September 11, the only kind of "terrorism" that the U.S. appeared to be concerned about was the struggle being waged by Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups. In other words, whenever the U.S. spoke of terrorism in the West Asian context it has so far referred to the activities of these groups alone. The people of West Asia have been conditioned to think only of the U.S' negative outlook on these groups whenever this term was mentioned. When the U.S. asks the Arab governments to join it in the 'War against Terrorism' these governments have a hard, if not impossible, task - explaining to their people that they are not being asked to join the U.S. (and by implication Israel) in a campaign against the Palestinian and Lebanese groups.

In addition to these long-standing difficulties was the problem posed to the Arab governments by the consolidation of a popular sentiment of admiration for Bin Laden and the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. This sentiment cannot be understood solely by listing the grievances that the Arab world holds against the West and then by seeing whether the given conditions can or cannot explain the response. The unequal terms of the interaction between the Arab world and the West has produced an emotional mix of sense of injustice, desire for redress, and rage. Proponents of a particular doctrine have been able to channel a small portion of this emotional mix into murderous assaults on the West. But there is a wider pool of rage and frustration and any Arab government that tries to suppress it will be inviting an explosion.

Long-standing grievances against the West were revived and strengthened by a series of reports that people of West Asian origin were being inflicted with a new phase of discrimination in the West. Reports of people with West Asian features being assaulted and of mosques being burnt contributed to the sullen rage against the West that lies just beneath the surface in this region. This new discrimination was also being brought home at a more personal level with the reports that people of West Asian appearance were being offloaded from flights or otherwise harassed, merely because of their looks. The U.S. might win its war against Al Qaeda , but that victory is not likely to gain it any friends in West Asia.

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