Monday, September 22, 2014

Helping the Arabs to help themselves


An existential struggle is taking place in the Arab world today. But is it ours or theirs? Before we step up military action in Iraq and Syria, that is the question that needs answering.

What concerns me most about United States President Barack Obama’s decision to re-engage in Iraq is that it feels as if it is being done in response to some deliberately exaggerated fears — fear engendered by YouTube videos of the beheadings of two US journalists and fear that the Islamic State is coming to a mall near you. How did we start getting so afraid again so fast? Did not we build a Department of Homeland Security?

I am not dismissing the Islamic State. Mr Obama is right that the group needs to be degraded and destroyed. But when you act out of fear, you do not think strategically and you glide over essential questions, such as why is it that Shia Iran, which helped trigger this whole Sunni rebellion in Iraq, is scoffing at even coordinating with us, and Turkey and several Arab states are setting limits on their involvement?

When I read that, I think that Mr Nader Mousavizadeh, who co-leads global consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners, is correct when he says: “When it comes to intervening in the Arab world’s existential struggle, we have to stop and ask ourselves why we have such a challenge getting them to help us save them.”

So before we get in any deeper, let us ask some radical questions, starting with: What if we did nothing? Dr George Friedman (no relation), the chairman of Stratfor, raised this idea in his recent essay on, The Virtue Of Subtlety. He notes that the Islamic State uprising was the inevitable Sunni backlash to being brutally stripped of power and resources by the pro-Iranian Shia governments and militias in Baghdad and Syria.

But then he asks: “(Is the Islamic State) really a problem for the US? The American interest is not stability, but the existence of a dynamic balance of power in which all players are effectively paralysed so that no one who would threaten the US emerges ... But the principle of balance of power does not mean that balance must be maintained directly. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have far more at stake in this than the US. So long as they believe that the US will attempt to control the situation, it is perfectly rational for them to back off and watch, act in the margins or even hinder the Americans. The US must turn this from a balance of power between Syria and Iraq to a balance of power among this trio of regional powers. They have far more at stake and, absent the US, they have no choice but to involve themselves. They cannot stand by and watch a chaos that could spread to them.”

Therefore, he concludes, the best US strategy rests in our doing as little as possible and forcing regional powers into the fray, then in maintaining the balance of power in this coalition. I am not sure, but it is worth debating.


Here is another question: What is this war really about?

“This is a war over the soul of Islam — that is what differentiates this moment from all others,” argues Dr Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar associated with St Antony’s College, Oxford. Here is why: For decades, Saudi Arabia has been the top funder of the mosques and schools throughout the Muslim world that promote the most puritanical version of Islam, known as Salafism, which is hostile to modernity, women and religious pluralism, or even Islamic pluralism.

Saudi financing for these groups is a by-product of the ruling bargain there between the Saud family and its Salafist religious establishment, known as the Wahhabis. The Sauds get to rule and live how they like behind walls and the Wahhabis get to propagate Salafist Islam both inside Saudi Arabia and across the Muslim world, using Saudi oil wealth. The kingdom is, in effect, helping to fund both the war against the Islamic State and the Islamist ideology that creates Islamic State members (about 1,000 Saudis are believed to be fighting with jihadist groups in Syria), through Salafist mosques in Europe, Pakistan, Central Asia and the Arab world.

This game has reached its limit. First, because the Islamic State presents a challenge to Saudi Arabia. The Islamic State said it is the caliphate, the centre of Islam. Saudi Arabia believes it is the centre. And, second, the Islamic State is threatening Muslims everywhere. Dr Khalidi told me of a Muslim woman friend in London who says she is afraid to go out with her headscarf on for fear that people will believe she is with the Islamic State — just for dressing as a Muslim. Saudi Arabia cannot continue fighting the Islamic State and feeding the ideology that nurtures the Islamic State. It will hurt more and more Muslims.

We, too, have to stop tolerating this. For years, the US has played the role of the central bank of Middle East stability, noted Mr Mousavizadeh. “Just as the European Central Bank funding delays the day when France has to go through structural reforms, America’s security umbrella,” always there no matter what the Saudis do, “has delayed the day when Saudi Arabia has to face up to its internal contradictions” and reform its toxic ruling bargain. The future of Islam and our success against the Islamic State depend on it.



Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer prize winning columnist at the New York Times.

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