Look at the mess Muslim states are making of their affairs. From Tunisia to Yemen, Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, the whole world of Islam is in turmoil. Pakistan has its own share of troubles, a unique republic with serviceable nukes in one hand and one of the world’s toughest begging bowls in the other, a republic that in its more ecstatic moments dubs itself a Fortress of Islam. Is this a problem of culture, of genes, of history?
Once upon a time Islam had a golden period. But long ago so did the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Mongols, the Tatars and the Huns? Can past glory be an excuse or a sufficient fig-leaf for present day weakness and failure?
History records the rise and fall of civilisations. But it also shows the revival of declining nations and their regeneration in other forms. In Europe the so-called Dark Ages were followed by the revival of learning and the rebirth of knowledge in the Renaissance. Christianity had its Reformation. Turkish nationhood found fresh expression in the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal. The China of today is not the China of the Boxer Rebellion or the Opium Wars.
Why has there been no similar movement in the world of Islam? For close to 500-600 years why has no fresh breeze wafted through its musty and cobweb-laden corridors? Why has it been left behind in the quest for knowledge and the discovery of new scientific frontiers?
Islamic regions sit on the crossroads of history, the Middle East, Central Asia and South West Asia, the pivot of the world in many histories. That is one reason for their continuing importance. Another is oil and the related phenomenon of the petrodollar economy – the denomination of the world oil trade in dollars and the surplus investment of oil-earned dollars in American treasury bonds, the source of easy credit for the US economy.
This is the grand swap that underpins the US-Saudi relationship –American guarantees of security for the House of Saud and Saudi Arabia’s agreement way back in 1973 to set the price of oil in American dollars.
(This is a vast subject by itself. The important thing is that without the petrodollar economy the American economy would find itself in deep trouble. Saddam Hussein’s sin was not the mythical possession of weapons of mass destruction but his determination to shift the pricing of Iraqi oil from the dollar to the euro.)
Look at that grand assemblage of Arab leaders gathered under the umbrella of the Arab League in Sharm-el-Sheikh. Would anyone miss a heartbeat over their deliberations? Field Marshal el-Sisi’s proposal of a joint Arab army is less a serious proposal than an attempt to pander to Saudi sensitivities. His regime after all is being propped up by large handouts from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait.
In the Iran-Iraq war – which lasted for eight years and drained both Iran and Iraq – the same kingdoms and sheikhdoms gave money to Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi dictator repaid the favour by invading Kuwait. This is a measure of modern Islamic statesmanship.
Today Saudi Arabia is worried about the rise of Iranian influence across the Middle East. Contributing decisively to the spread of this influence was the American invasion of Iraq. Was there even a squeak from Saudi Arabia at the time, if no more than a whisper in American ears, that the Americans were sowing the wind? But hatred of Saddam Hussein blinded the Saudis to the consequences of what the Americans were doing. Today they are reaping the whirlwind – and trying to stop the spread of Iranian influence by launching a bombing campaign against the Houthis of Yemen (whom they take to be Iranian proxies which they are not).
The Saudis would be wise to restrict their newfound martial ardour to air strikes. If they make the mistake of a ground invasion it may evoke – who can tell? – the spectre of Afghanistan. Pakistan of course would be wise to restrict its support to the kind of rhetoric which comes so easily to Pakistani lips – sanctity of the Holy Mosques and the sacred defence of the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia, rhetoric not a whit dampened by the circumstance that neither the two Holy Mosques nor the territorial integrity of the kingdom are under any kind of threat.
Saudi Arabia is attacking Yemen; it’s not the other way round, the Houthis not by word or gesture showing any intention of marching into the extended desert of the Hejaz. But one would have a hard time guessing this from Pakistani official pronouncements, the foreign secretary indeed, in a rush of excitement, explaining that every Pakistani was ready to die for the sake of the defence of the two Holy Mosques. The question thus is worth repeating: who is contemplating an attack on the holy shrines?
Pakistan, as it takes no special genius to figure out, is caught between the dictates of common sense and the pulls of dependency. Most Pakistanis agree that we have no business in Yemen. A Saudi ground attack would in itself be an act of folly and for Pakistan to participate in that folly makes no sense. But equally there’s the fear of alienating the Saudis, the remembrance of favours past and perhaps favours to come weighing heavily on the minds of the civilian and military leadership. Pray to God therefore that the Saudis stick to their air strikes. We can neither afford Saudi displeasure nor the risk of any foolhardy intervention.
Oman, next door neighbour to Yemen, is keeping its distance from this conflict. But Oman is on surer ground than Pakistan, because it does not depend on Saudi largesse.
There’s not much comfort in any of this. Muslim states, with few exceptions, seem to be the playthings of outside forces, not masters of their own destinies. A nuclear deal with Iran would be in everyone’s interests. But the Arab kingdoms fear the further rise of Iranian influence. Israel’s potent nuclear arsenal causes them no sleepless nights but Iran, for reasons going back into history, is the stuff of their nightmares.
Similarly, a deal on Syria would be in the interests of the world of Islam. What business is it of anyone’s to want the ouster of Bashar al-Assad? But the Saudis committed themselves to this path as did Recep Erdogan of Turkey and even when it has become obvious, even to the benighted, that the alternatives on offer – from the Al-Qaeda surrogate, the Nusra Front, to the Islamic State – are worse than anything that Assad represents, the Saudis and the Turkish leadership can’t bring themselves to accept this.
So where lies the problem, in the culture or the history? The Renaissance, as already mentioned, took the form of the revival of learning. Islamic revivalism has taken such forms as the writings of Maulana Maudoodi in Pakistan and Sayed Qutub in Egypt, and in the rise of such organisations as AlQaeda and its even more distilled essence, Daish or the Islamic State. To match Rousseau and Voltaire we thus have the beacon of the faith, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the Caliph Abubakr Al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State.
When the last trumpets sound and the final accounting of things is done, what will weigh heavier in the divine scales: all the oil of the Arab world, and the wisdom accompanying it, or the books written, the works of art produced, even the music composed, that have enlarged the mind, and given wing to the imagination, of our species?