What It Would Take to Mend Fences with Islam

The start of the Iraq war in 2003 marked a crucial break between the US and almost all the states of the region. “None of Iraq’s neighbors, absolutely none, were pleased by the American occupation of Iraq,” says the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari. Long-term US allies like Turkey astonished the White House by refusing to allow US troops to use its territory to invade Iraq.

Barack Obama, who made his first official visit to the country on Tuesday, is now trying to disengage from Iraq without appearing to scuttle or leave anarchy behind.

He is trying to win back old allies, and, as he made clear in a speech in Ankara on Monday, to end the confrontation between the US and Islam which was president Bush’s legacy.

It is not easy for Mr Obama to reverse the tide of anti-Americanism or bring to an end the wars which Mr Bush began. For all the Iraqi government’s claim that life is returning to normal in Baghdad the last few days have seen a crescendo of violence. The day before the President arrived, six bombs exploded in different parts of Baghdad, killing 37 people.

And as much as Mr Obama would like to treat the Iraq war as ancient history, the US is still struggling to extricate itself. The very fact that the Democratic President had to arrive in Iraq by surprise for security reasons, as George Bush and Tony Blair invariably did, shows that the conflict is refusing to go away.

The Iraqi Prime Minister and President remain holed up in the Green Zone most of the time. The American President could not fly into the Green Zone by helicopter because of bad weather but the airport road is still unsafe and Baghdad remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The Iraqi political landscape too was permanently altered by the US invasion and it will be difficult to create a stable Iraqi state which does not depend on the US. Opinion polls in Iraq show that most Iraqis believe that it is the US and not their own government which is in control of their country.

One change which is to Mr Obama’s advantage is that the American media have largely stopped reporting the conflict because they no longer have the money to do so and a majority of Americans think the war was won. But the danger for the President is that if there is a fresh explosion in Iraq, he may be blamed for throwing away a victory that was won by his predecessor.

The rhetoric with which the US conducts its diplomacy is easier to change than facts on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. Mr Obama’s speech to the Turkish parliament in Ankara was a carefully judged bid to reassure the Muslim world that the US is not at war with Islam.
Everything he said was in sharp contrast to George Bush’s bellicose threats post 9/11 about launching a “crusade” and to the rhetoric of neo-conservatives attacking “Islamo-fascism” or claiming that there was a “clash of civilizations.”

The leaders of states with Muslim majorities appreciate the different tone of US pronouncements, but wonder how far Mr Obama will be able to introduce real change.

Turkish students at a meeting with Mr Obama in Istanbul voiced scepticism that American actions in future would be much different from what they were under Mr Bush. Reasonably enough, Mr Obama replied that he should be given time and “moving the ship of state is a slow process.” But he also cited the US withdrawal from Iraq as a sign that he would match actions to words.

Istanbul, on the boundaries of Europe and Asia, is a good place for the US leader to display a more conciliatory attitude towards Islam. The city is filled with grandiose monuments to Christianity and Islam, though religious tolerance was more in evidence under the Ottoman empire than since the foundation of the modern Turkish state in 1923. Mr Obama paid visits to the great Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia and was shown the splendors of the Blue Mosque by turbaned clerics.

But the women students wearing short skirts and without headscarves asking Mr Obama questions in fluent English give a misleading impression of the balance between the secular and the religious in modern-day Turkey.

The reality is that secularism is dying away in Turkey’s rural hinterland and is on the retreat even in Istanbul itself. Butchers selling pork are few compared to 20 years ago. Obtaining alcohol is quietly being made more difficult, except for foreign tourists, by high taxes on wine and expensive liquor licenses for restaurants.

The old middle class, particularly in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir may be resolute in their defense of the secular state. But the so-called “Anatolian Tigers”, the new companies which have led Turkey’s spectacular economic growth, are generally owned and run by more conservative families where the women wear headscarves.
“Socially Turkey is becoming far more Islamic,” said one expert on Turkey yesterday, “although the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is moving cautiously.”

Mr Obama’s effort to make a U-turn in American policy towards the Islamic world will ultimately depend on how far he changes US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians, the occupation of Iraq, the confrontation with Iran and Syria and the war in Afghanistan.

The Iranians, for instance, note that despite Mr Obama’s friendlier approach to them the US official in Washington in charge of implementing sanctions against them is a hold-over from the Bush administration.

The American confrontation with Islam post 9/11 always had more to do with opposition to foreign intervention and occupation than it did with cultural differences; the most ideologically religious Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia supported the US and it is doubtful how far al-Qa’ida fighters were motivated primarily by religious fanaticism.
The chief US interrogator in Iraq, Major Mathew Alexander, who is credited with finding out the location of the al-Qa’ida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, says that during 1,300 interrogations he supervised, he came across only one true ideologue. He is quoted as saying that “I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the No 1 reason they had decided to pick up arms and join al-Qa’ida was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay.”

This diagnosis by Major Alexander is confirmed by the history of Islamic fundamentalism across the Muslim world over the past 30 years.

It was the success of the Iranian revolution against the Shah in 1978/79 which began an era when political Islam was seen as a threat by the West, but Ayatollah Khomeini’s appeal to Iranians always had a strong strain of nationalism and his exiling by the Shah in 1964 was because of his vocal opposition to extra-territorial rights for US military personnel in Iran.

The success of political Islam over secular nationalism in the Arab world has largely been because of the former’s ability to resist the enemies of the community or the state. In Egypt the nationalism of Nasser was discredited by humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. In Iraq, for all his military bravado, Saddam Hussein was a notably disastrous military leader. All the military regimes espousing nationalism and secularism in the Arab world began or ended up turning into corrupt and brutal autocracies. In contrast, political Islam has been able to go some way towards delivering its promises of defending the community.

In Lebanon, Hizbollah guerrillas were able to successfully harass Israeli forces in the 1990s where Yasser Arafat’s commanders had abandoned their men and fled.

In Gaza this year, Hamas was able to portray itself as the one Palestinian movement committed to resisting Israel.

In Iraq, al-Qa’ida got nowhere until it could present itself as the opposition to the US occupation and as an ally, though a supremely bigoted and murderous one, of Iraqi nationalism.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has the advantage of fighting against foreign occupation.

Secularism in the Arab world and in Afghanistan, on the other hand, has the problem that it is seen as being at the service of foreign intervention. It is why secularism and nationalism are ultimately stronger in Turkey than in almost all other Islamic countries.

Kemal Ataturk and the Turkish nationalists successfully defended the Turkish heartlands from foreign attack between 1915 and 1922. This gave secularism and nationalism a credibility and a popularity in Turkey which they never had in Iraq, Egypt or Syria.

Mr Obama’s aim of ending the confrontation between the US and the Muslim world is both easier and more difficult than it looks. It is easier because the confrontation is not primarily over religion or clashing cultures. But the confrontation is over real issues such as the fate of the Palestinians, the future of Iraq and the control of Afghanistan. And even if Mr Obama wanted to change the US political relationship with Israel, it is not clear that he has the political strength at home to do so.

If these concrete issues are not resolved then America’s confrontation with the Muslim world may remain as confrontational and difficult as it was under Mr Bush.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner


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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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