The Arab dilemma

Print edition : October 27, 2001

The Arab world may not be as pro-Taliban as it is against the military operations but is unable to reverse the course of the war.

"OSAMA power. I'm Osama's soldier," yells the nine-year-old Omani as the sides are being picked for a game in the latest variant of cops and robbers. His 11-year-old brother pre-empts the choice: "We are Osama's soldiers. You are the enemy."

The legend of Osama bin Laden seems set to live on irrespective of what happens to the man himself. But that is the curious aspect of the Arab world's attitude to the whole affair at the current stage of the United States-led military action in Afghanistan. It is as if the Arab world, via an unconscious consensus, has decided that it need not agitate against the U.S. actions in Afghanistan or for the causes claimed by Al Qaeda since it has already honoured Osama by elevating him to the level of a legend. In private conversation, chat at roadside cafes, comments in the newspapers and responses by readers, there can be little doubt about where the majority opinion lies. Osama might be eulogised for standing up to the most powerful military force on earth and the U.S. might be despised for deploying its forces in a territory lived in by some of the most wretched people on earth. It might not be as pro-Osama as it is against the military operations that have been launched against him. But neither part of the emotional mix is leading to a real groundswell or mass movement and it does not appear that there will be any change in the situation in the days or weeks to come.

At the Organisation of Islamic Conference meeting on October 10 in Doha, Qatar, Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar, left, in discussion with his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharazi.-HASAN JAMALI /AP

Of course, there is little that the Arab world can do to stop the U.S. or make it reverse the course it has taken in Afghanistan. Most of it also understands what makes the U.S. do what it is doing. Regional governments are not going to tolerate any disturbance of peace in Osama's name. Such demonstrations as have been allowed were organised within the walled compounds of universities. It is as if the Osama affair in its totality has already been consigned to the long list of grievances that the Arab world has against the West. From the Arab perspective the totality does not begin with September 11 but with the use that the West made of the warriors of Islam in the campaign against the Soviet Union and which has now culminated in the war against these warriors and the wretchedly poor country that is their base. If there is to be a reckoning, the time has not arrived and in the meanwhile there is nothing more to be done than make a legend out of Osama.

If the Arab street is responding in this depressed if fatalistic fashion, the Arab governments are worried and also confused. They are worried because they do not want the idolisation of Osama to sprout into a new revolutionary cult. Saudi Arabia's royal family represents the regime most directly challenged by Osama who described them as "hypocrites" and "apostates" in his statement over the Al Jazeera television network. It was therefore not surprising that Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz made a statement in which he vehemently denied any connection between Osama and true Islam. Prince Nayef also reaffirmed that the kingdom was the foremost preserver and promoter of the faith.

But Saudi Arabia's confusion was also evident in an earlier statement made by Prince Nayef. In the statement he strongly denounced insinuations from the West that the kingdom had not extended sufficient cooperation in the campaign against terrorism. On the contrary, Prince Nayef said, it was the West that had failed to match the Saudi efforts against terrorism.

Arab governments are among the many world-wide (a category that, ironically, includes Israel as well) that are confused by the Western proclivity to be selective in their identification of terrorist groups.

The most severe domestic political challenge that most Arab governments face is from groups that use religion as the main vehicle for mass mobilisation. Arab governments cracked down severely on these groups but, invariably, members of these groups found shelter in the West when they were hard-pressed at home. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are among the countries that have tried in vain to persuade governments such as that of the United Kingdom at least to restrict the activities of the dissident groups if they cannot extradite them. Now these very Arab governments are being asked to undertake all kinds of measures against even otherwise peaceful citizens who might have some financial links with Osama and the Al Qaeda.

Some of the misgivings in the minds of Arab leaders were reflected in the resolution that was endorsed at the extraordinary meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) held on October 10 in Doha, Qatar. Foremost among their concerns was the possibility of innocent civilians being killed in the fighting in Afghanistan.

The Arabs, with first-hand knowledge of what happened in Iraq, know all about the capacity of "smart bombs" to display a dumbness that their manufacturers say does not exist. The Arab governments also expressed their concern about the views expressed by several authoritative figures in the U.S. about how the war that began with Osama could end with at least the ousting of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and if possible a little more. The OIC Foreign Ministers also urged the West not to forget about the Palestinian issue in their preoccupation with Osama and wanted reassurances that Islam would not be equated with terrorism.

However, what was also noticeable was the manner in which the OIC forum re-focussed on the issues that were of direct concern to the Arabs. Over the past decade, the OIC resolutions had given importance to the issues raised by Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Moro islands and so on at a level just secondary in importance to specifically Arab issues such as the conflict with Israel. However, none of the other issues found direct mention in the Doha resolution. Senior officials from some of the non-Arab OIC countries had liked to boast that the expansion of OIC concerns in the 1990s was a reflection of the fact that the Arab bloc was no longer at the centre of gravity in the Muslim world. Did the re-focus on specifically Arab issues then represent a shift back to the traditional centre of gravity?

Perhaps the one country that has cause to be worried about the shift in the OIC's focus could be Pakistan. After all, Pakistan is the one country after Afghanistan that would have to face the "blowback" from the current U.S. operations. But the OIC did not find it in itself to express a word of concern for Pakistan's plight or to press for the benefits (support for its stand on Kashmir) that Pakistan hopes to reap from its assistance to the U.S. It was as if the rest of the OIC had decided that Pakistan had called the troubles on itself, not merely by its current support to the U.S. but also by its blunder in playing strategic games beyond its capacity by trying to convert Afghanistan into a client state.

As the U.S. continues with its operations in Afghanistan, the Arab world finds itself confronting a scenario that has become quite familiar. During other recent crises as well, the U.S had made much of its efforts to consult the Arab leadership and effectuate coordination. However, once the U.S. launched actions pursuant to the consultations, the Arabs were steadily marginalised from the ensuing decision-making processes. This time the Arab leaders seem to have decided that they would refrain from extending whole-hearted support to the U.S. and instead concentrate on protecting their own flanks.

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