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Clash of Civilizations? Think Again

As the war begins in Afghanistan, you can expect straight talk from Republicans. And they are telling you: Islam is not America’s enemy. While targeting Taliban regime with missiles, the Bush administration is showering the principal Islamic powers surrounding it with generous financial and military aid. But as it works to dispel a “clash of civilisations” theory, America’s apparent alternative is no less dangerous.

The Bush administration has released $100 million to Pakistan, and prepared an additional $600 million economic package to co-opt this second largest Muslim country, the holder of the “Islamic bomb.” US lawmakers have called for their “key” ally, Turkey, to be relieved of $5 billion in military debt and encouraged the IMF to pledge $19 billion in new assistance.

Equally important, if not more so, is the role of the Wahabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia — the US’s most prominent ally in the Gulf and indeed the whole Arab region.

For the Bush administration, this strategic triangle is preferable to the regional alliance it attempted to forge during the last decade of peace negotiations between the Arab countries and Israel, for the present coalition includes the larger Middle East region and thus gathers the larger Islamic countries, which are capable of securing America’s Asian and Middle Eastern interests all at once. By the same token, however, this alliance will further marginalise the Middle East and downgrade Egypt’s strategic importance.

Brilliantly located between China and Russia, the new strategic alliance could facilitate the long-term projection of forces and influence in this energy-rich, politically unstable region.

Moscow is no less enthusiastic than the US about a new geo-political configuration. It will transform what Russia has long considered a crescent of instability into a triangle of tranquility. Not only has Russian President Putin withdrawn all his objections to America establishing a foothold in Central Asia; he has even expressed his readiness to subsume his strategy-making within US leadership to secure Russia’s southern flanks from growing regional dangers, notably Islamic fundamentalism.

Once considered by Russia as the “Islamic NATO,” Turkey and Pakistan are now expected to act against the spread of Islamic radicalism in the former Soviet republics. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is expected to end all support to the ”extremist Wahabis” in Russia’s provinces, especially Chechnya, and in neighbouring states. A notable target will be the Hizb-e Tahrir, a Taliban-style movement that has growing support in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The totalitarian regimes in these countries are especially enthusiastic to coordinate with America.

On the surface, this sounds like the perfect geo-political alliance. Common interests and goals are defined by all the members of the alliance with the military, economic and diplomatic means to implement them.

So what is the down side to this potential geo-political success story ?

Well, first and foremost, all the regional members of the unwritten alliance are unstable, undemocratic, gross violators of human rights. To ally with them would be to repeat the mistakes made with the Shah of Iran in the 1970s, military regimes in the 1980s, Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban in the 1990s… Totalitarian and military regimes do not produce long-term stability; they themselves are temporary, and they arouse violent opposition to their rule and hostility toward America. Unfortunately, decision-makers in Washington have limited their choices to bombing the countries that host and support the terrorists, or coopting them. The latter response, articulated by Secretary of State Colin Powell, has taken the upper hand so far, while leaving room for bombing Iraq at a later stage.

This is precisely the trap America has fallen into in the past. You would think that after 11 September, it would no longer be geo-political business as usual. Both the geography of violence and the politics of geography have been transformed in recent years, and as the New York and Washington bombings clearly show.

Though Washington’s new balance of power is meant to defuse Bin Laden’s “balance of terror,” it is nonetheless projecting more power and less balance into the unstable Asian/Middle East region. As soon as America’s credit from the 11 September disaster runs out, China, which has shown increasing interest in the energy-rich countries of Central Asia, will evince its hostility to the new alliance. India will be no less opposed to any such alliance, which includes a stronger Pakistan while Kashmir continues to boil violently.

For Europe, the alliance may sound like the lesser of two evils, but is not. Further, it runs contrary to everything Europe stands for in terms of a vision of stability and development in a logic of shared neighbourly relations. Hopes of a Euro-Mediterranean culture will suffer most from the brutal, short-sighted geo-strategic alliance being established.

Alarm bells must be ringing in the Arab world too; already weak and divided, it will be alienated and destabilised by the new Pax Americana. It is precisely the absence of Arab leadership, caused by the humiliation and defeat Israel has inflicted, that led to the instability and turmoil we have been witnessing in the Islamic and Arab worlds. Referred to as “moderate,” the Arab states hesitant to join the “international” coalition will be marginalised even more; the liberalisation of Arab societies generally will suffer from the transformation of the Islamic periphery states into the centre of the Islamic world, leading to a wider regional crisis and creating a rift between Arab and non-Arab Islamic countries.

The search for peace between Israel and its neighbours will suffer no less. To my knowledge, Bush’s recent proposal for a Palestinian state, to which many are pinning all their hopes, is based on an initiative introduced several months ago to Cairo, and rejected because of the humiliating long-term conditions attached to it.

In the post-Afghanistan world, none of the new players have a vested interest in the fair resolution of the Palestinian question beyond the Islamic holy sites. Continued violence in Palestine will aggravate already hostile public opinion in the Arab world. Geo-strategy will win yet another round against the notion of a “clash of civilisations” as it responds to terrorism.

A geo-strategic alliance with bankrupt regimes, too, will undermine democracy, human rights and other factors indispensable to long-term stability. The absence of such fundamental and universal rights will further alienate Muslim societies there, and lead to more violence, terrorism, and hostility towards America and the West. This, then, will be a “clash of wills” between victims and victimisers.

As America goes to war, the West needs to take stock of its relations with the South, which it refused to do in Durban. It is high time for it to support democratic reform and respect for human rights; it is time for it to end all form of foreign occupation with the same vigour and determination it has shown in its vow to fight terrorism. As for the Arab world, the new crisis is proving more dangerous than that of the post-Gulf War era. In the absence of minimum coordination between the major Arab powers and the Palestinians, much will be lost. A marginalised and divided Arab world can only bring more catastrophes on its people. Unless they rebound, united, they will have only themselves to blame for the consequences.

Marwan Bishara teaches at the American University of Paris and is the author of Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid

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