|Mixed Muslim message in 'war on
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international
affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse,
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