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    Middle East
 
     Apr 12, 2008

Mixed Muslim message in 'war on terror'
By Sreeram Chaulia

It is exactly 15 years since Samuel Huntington's iconic article appeared in Foreign Affairs journal to predict that the centuries-old cultural clash between "Islam" and the "West" will "become more virulent".

Today, if one examines the positions of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) on the West's "war on terror", Huntington appears to be belied. The majority of them (with exceptions of "radical" states like Iran, Syria and Malaysia) lend territorial and/or military assistance of different shades to the US's "war on terror".

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based non-governmental organization, has just disclosed that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) clandestinely transported at least 14 detainees
linked to the "war on terror" to Jordan, which was the top rendition destination from 2001 to 2004. Jordan's General Intelligence Department allegedly interrogated and tortured these non-Jordanian Muslim suspects on behalf of the CIA. Due to their questionable status in international law, renditions have been conducted in a hush-hush manner, irrespective of the destination country.

However, the case of Jordan is unique because it is a Muslim-majority country in which the "war on terror" is vastly unpopular and inflammatory. Knowledge of the Jordanian government's collusion with its American ally on such a sensitive issue could have flared up extremist violence in the Arab country. By shrink-wrapping US-Jordanian collaboration in the "war on terror" beyond public gaze, Amman tried to shoot two birds with one shot - cement elite-level ties with Washington and deny dissenters and Islamists new fodder to resist the monarchy.

An identical process has been unfolding in several other Muslim-majority countries since the George W Bush administration embarked on a global campaign to counter perceived terrorist threats. The British Broadcasting Corporation revealed last month that soldiers of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are participating in dangerous full-scale operations alongside US troops in Afghanistan.

While their stock task is to "deliver humanitarian aid to fellow Muslims", they are also reported to be "fighting their way out of Taliban ambushes". Typical to the pattern, the BBC said, "Until now, their deployment has been kept so secret that not even their own countrymen knew they were here." As a sidelight, it was also added that Jordanian forces were carrying out base security duties in Afghanistan as well.

But for the investigative penchant of media and rights watchdogs, it is unlikely the people of Jordan or the UAE would have known that their armies and intelligence agencies were serving under the much-despised American banner. Similarly, great controversy envelops the exact role of Pakistan's armed forces and intelligence in aiding the American effort to eliminate the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the restive borderlands abutting the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan. Over the years, numerous claims have been made that American forces have secured from President Pervez Musharraf the right to fire missiles and organize raids on terror hideouts on Pakistani soil.

Unlike in Jordan or the UAE, the Pakistani government's hospitality for large American troop contingents is an open truth known to the people of Pakistan. However, the details of the nature of cooperation being extended by Islamabad to its American ally are kept out of public gaze because of its incendiary potential.

What is more, to cover up the extreme anger being generated in Pakistani society at the open access accorded to US forces, Pakistani intelligence agencies have played it both ways. They kept their lines open to the Taliban and al-Qaeda even while ostensibly ranged against them on the side of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ambiguity in Pakistan's stance on the "war on terror" is necessary for Islamabad to contain public dissent and furor over behind-the-scenes compromises with Washington.

The type of assistance a Muslim country can render to the US in the "war on terror" varies according to the nature of tasks assigned to it. Egypt, Libya and Sudan, which consider themselves as much part of Africa as of an extended Middle East, have been quietly but steadily handing over al-Qaeda suspects to the US since 2001. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait have ceded territory and facilities for US military bases from which power is projected and war threats are issued against "axis of evil" states.

Of the 700-odd overseas military bases commanded by the US, quite a few "lily pads" existed after 2001 in Central Asian Muslim countries like Kyrgyzstan (Manas airbase), Uzbekistan (Khanabad airbase, closed in 2005) and Tajikistan (Ayni airbase). Kazakhstan has allowed usage of its air fields for landing and refueling of US jets on their way to Afghanistan. The ensuing counter-measures taken by Russia and China rolled back Central Asian red carpets to Washington, but it is a fact that governments of these Muslim countries were eager to welcome American forces much against the will of their populations.

In Southeast Asia, the US has been conducting joint military exercises with the army of the world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia. Washington states that it is involved in a "long-term counter-terrorism program" with Jakarta that includes military and police training to combat the Jemaah Islamiyah. The post-Suharto normalization of military cooperation between Washington and Jakarta occurred in spite of the tremendous surge of anti-American sentiment in Indonesian society.

What emerges from all these illustrations is a pattern of governments of most Muslim countries subtly but officially siding with the US "war on terror", while their citizens have taken on vehemently anti-American positions. To an extent, this government-citizen divide is not unique to the Muslim world.

Even Britain under prime minister Tony Blair pledged complete loyalty to the US in Afghanistan and Iraq in spite of rising anti-war public opinion at home. However, the difference between Europe and the Muslim world is that the former has democratic procedures for popular will to throw out governments that are erring on foreign policy.

Spain and Italy are two examples where governments fell in 2004 and 2007 owing to their allegiance to the US "war on terror". A comparable change of regime in dictatorial Saudi Arabia or Tajikistan is unimaginable.

Yet, Pew Global Attitudes Surveys have consistently found that the image of the US and its "war on terror" is abysmal in all Muslim societies, even that of secular Turkey. Almost in unison, Muslim people around the world are wary of the "war on terror" being a deliberate assault on their co-religionists and faith.

The impression of "ugly American", for many reasons, enjoys great sway in the Muslim world. The total lack of appreciation among Muslim publics for the "war on terror" does vindicate Huntington's thesis that Islam vs The West is a huge fault line whose cracks are widening.

The deals that governments of Muslim countries have struck with Washington since 2001 are practical regime survival stratagems that lack civilizational consent from their societies. A civilization cannot be reduced to states and their foreign policies because it is a much more grassroots phenomenon emanating from informal institutions and social beliefs. In the case of Islam, the concept of the ummah (universal Muslim brotherhood) is the centripetal tether of a civilization that is politically parceled out in the form of the 57 states of the OIC.

Global protests and demonstrations among Muslim communities at the Danish cartoons imbroglio since 2005 did not respect the political partition of the civilization into multiple nation-states. The visceral mistrust and fear of the "war on terror" among these same communities is, likewise, a mirror of civilizational suspicions that transcend opportunistic foreign policies of individual Muslim states.

Huntington can be faulted for over-generalization and broad-brushing of numerous internal clashes within civilizations, but the mood of the "Muslim street" towards the "war on terror" does uphold the view that there exists a civilizational solidarity that is defined in opposition to other civilizations.

On civilization-defining issues like the "war on terror", Islamic societies speak and think as one entity, even if their rulers sup with the devil. The government-citizen duality on the "war on terror" in the Muslim world augurs a reconsideration of Huntington's famous "clash of civilizations" formulation. In his 1993 essay, Huntington referred to "peoples and governments" as belonging to a particular civilization, without distinguishing between the two. The case of the "war on terror" teaches that recognizing the duality helps one to arrive at a fairer assessment of his academic bombshell on its 15th anniversary.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York.

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