Clash of Civilization in Middle East

Ever since the demise of the Communist threat in 1991, the leading scholars have been proliferating their visions as to how the world politics would reshape. Amongst all, Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory has been ruling the academic debate for past two decades. According to Huntington’s hallucination, the conflicts of post Cold War era would occur along the cultural fault lines — regions, ethnic groups, nationalities and religious groups — separating civilizations at two levels: firstly, at micro level i.e. adjacent groups for control of territory; and secondly, at macro level i.e. states compete for military and economic power to internationally promote their political and religious values.

The ongoing situation in Middle East suggests that Huntington’s theory has already started showing its worst colours. Unfortunately, the Muslim countries have gone a step ahead by indulging into sectarianism while negating Huntington’s claim that the future theatre of war would constitute the West versus the rest. Furthermore, both micro and macro levels of fault lines are, today, well prominent on the Middle East landscape.

As regards the element of religion in international relations, there exist two opposite schools of thought:

1. The first, while downplaying the religious factor, believes that international relations is a secular social science where religion is not a deciding factor in formulating a state’s foreign policy. Scholars belonging to this group argue that the breakup of Christendom after Peace of Westphalia-1648 and dissolution of Ottoman Empire-1924 gave birth to the modern state system in Europe and the Islamic world respectively. Since then, nation-states have always preferred their extreme national interests — survival, security, sovereignty, territorial and economic gains — in deciding their relations with other actors of the international community.

2. The second group integrates religion into the study of populist politics and claims that ever since the creation of Israel and the episode of 9/11, religion has increasingly been a central factor in relations within and especially among states.

As Christianity is divided into Catholic and Protestant factions, the Muslim world is divided into Sunni and Shiite Islamic states. There are overall 87-90% Sunni and 10-13% Shiite Muslims spread all over the world. Saudi Arabia being a typical Sunni-majority country has approximately 85-90% of Sunni and 10-15% Shiite population. Similarly, Iran is a typical example of Shiite state with around 90% of Shiite versus 10% of Sunni populace.

Syria and Iraq are two variants where majority population has/had been governed by minorities. Syria holds 74% Sunni, 16% Shiite (Alawites) and 10% Christians population. The power, however, remained with minority Alawites since 1920s when Syria became French colony on the fall of Ottoman Empire. The power structure in Syria kept swinging between the two sects after its independence in 1946. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad — an Alawite — assumed power on the podium of Ba’ath Party. He maintained a good balance during his regime. The visibility of many Sunnis in top elite positions rarely assuaged the fears of some Syrians that the state machinery was completely dominated by a secretive, all-powerful and monolithic Alawite community. The present incumbent Bashar al-Assad, conversely, lost the strategic balance.

On the contrary, Shiite Muslims are in majority in Iraq with 60-65% against Sunni Muslims with 30-35% of total population. Historically, the Shiite were denied their right to govern as they opposed the British occupation of Iraq during WWI, and minority Sunni Arabs were delegated the reins of power by the Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill. Any protest against the minority rule in Iraq had been brutally suppressed. The minority rule in Iraq lasted till Saddam’s ouster in 2003.

The present scenario in Middle East, though, emerged from the Arab-Spring, yet its present picture is, rather, purely sectarian.

Since 2003, a number of strategic developments have contributed in shaping the regional political and security behaviour.

Firstly, different political actors were tried by the US in Iraq who all failed to ensure perpetual stability.

Secondly, the prevailing pseudo-democracy empowered Shiite majority in Iraq after over nine decades of minority rule.

Thirdly, instead of developing a national consensus, Iraq transformed into a Shiite state.

Fourthly, the two groups with complete trust deficit started competing in a zero-sum game for control over Iraqi political institutions, hence, plunging the country into civil war.

Lastly, the resisting Sunni Muslims including a large majority of trained Sunni soldiers deserted/expelled from Iraqi Army, joined hands with resistance groups fighting against al-Assad in Syria.

The former Iraqi Premier, Noori Al-Maliki stands guilty on two accounts: first, for not developing national consensus by taking all the sectarian and ethnic groups in the main national stream; and second, failing in threat perception and timely mobilizing forces against onslaught of ISIS deep inside Iraqi territory.

It may also be pertinent to critically examine Obama’s foreign policy towards the region in a realist paradigm. In one simple sentence, it is nothing short of total failure. The Washington think-tank and leadership have not only been fractured on formulating their state’s response towards Syrian crisis but have also completely misread the regional situation.

From the beginning of the revolt against President Assad in 2011, Syria has become a proxy battle ground for regional and international actors. In their long struggle for regional supremacy, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the core players in two battle groups:

(1) the US-led proxy that includes Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and even Israel — all supporting the Syrian Sunni rebels to topple Assad; and

(2) the Sino-Russian led proxy that constitutes Iran and states of Iraq and Syria — supporting Bashar al-Assad against the Sunni fighters.

Where Sunni rebels were provided funds and weapons by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, the Shiite-ruled neighbours, Iran and Iraq, dispatched Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi militiamen to rescue Assad’s army.

Interestingly, the White House has been playing quite an opposing role in Iraq and Syria. While it’s been supporting the Sunni fighters against Syrian Shiite regime, simultaneously it has also been supporting the Iraqi Shiite government in crushing the Sunni militants. One thing which the US analysts missed was the strategic linkage of opposition Sunni groups both in Syria and Iraq fighting against their regimes. This strategic linkage of all interest groups provided an opportunity to radical groups to carve out ISIS and make the region a cockpit for conflicts.

The political and defence analysts view it all as long-term ‘anticipatory intelligence’ and policy failure of the US. The analysts had reported the group’s emergence and its ‘prowess and capabilities’ but failed to predict their will to fight. The US policy in Middle East can also be gauged with its outcome since 2003. Quoting Dr N. Janardhan, the region has become a hub of crises rather than stability. Critics in the US, both from ruling Democrats and Republican opponents argue that Obama’s changed track policy is a decision taken in a political desperation — in the aftermath of ISIS’s beheading of two Americans — and could lead to another instance of strategic miscalculations.

Just to mention Pakistan, though a Sunni majority country (85-89%) with world’s second largest Shiite minority (10-15%), has always been considered a moderate Islamic state. Fawaz A. Gergis, the leading Lebanese-American philosopher, in his book ‘America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests?’ states that after disintegration of USSR, the US administration asked the newly-emerged Central Asian Islamic states to follow the moderate Pakistani model of Islam.

Though there have been numerous conspiracy theories to ignite Shiite-Sunni conflicts in the country, Pakistani society stands united to foil all such attempts. The mere reason of it is the equal share of all religious, sectarian and ethnic communities in politics, military and bureaucracy.

As a responsible international actor Pakistan has always played a positive role in balancing relations not only in Muslim world but also bridging the gap between the West and the East. Despite being the US frontline ally against Communist USSR, Pakistan and China, on the other hand, have historically been best friends.

Pakistan not only maintained a strategic balance in its relations with the US and China, but also played significant role in easing tensions between the two — paving a way for President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.

Pakistan enjoys equally good relations with all Muslim states. It has commonality of interests with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. The best role that Pakistan’s foreign office can play is to take advantage of its credible relations with Islamic world and the US. Whilst standing within the international community, and seeking support of other external actors, Pakistan can mediate and can help bridge the sectarian gap among Islamic states.

By: Arshad Mahmood

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