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Bridging the Gulf

Pakistanlink, News analysis, Dr Saleem H. Ali Posted: Jun 21, 2009

President Obama’s much-awaited speech to the Muslim world has come and gone but the most salient questions about preventing a “clash of civilizations” remain unanswered. The speech was gracious and well-researched, but skillfully skirted the most consequential issues of policy change.

The president, who always likes to play safe on most issues, did not provide any details of how the “dialogue” between America and the Muslim world should proceed. In order to be successful, this dialogue may need to take a Platonic form in which tough arguments on governance can be encouraged at multiple levels.

Obama will have to dispense with political platitudes about two key American friends: Saudi Arabia and Israel. America will need to have more clear and consistent parameters about democracy and human rights in such lands if it is ever to gain any traction with Muslims. The Saudis cannot indefinitely delay democratization and human rights with ossified cultural excuses nor can the Israelis play the card of democratic supremacy while denying the right of self-determination to several million people under their occupation.

Interestingly enough, both the Saudis and Israelis have a common geopolitical foe that the United States has marginalized for the past three decades — Iran. President Obama’s comments on Iran provided nothing new except for a reluctant admission of the US role in overthrowing a democratic government in the country during the Cold War. The opinion on the Muslim street that can be frequently heard from Jakarta to Casablanca is that the United States has made Iran a pariah state by exploiting historic Arab-Persian animosity which works nicely to Israel’s advantage.

The Arab states remain preoccupied with the “Iranian threat” to their sovereignty rather than considering the Palestinian question in earnest. The rancor between the Arabs and the Iranians has reached remarkably petty levels such as arguments on the naming on maps of the famed waterway between the Arab states and Iran as “Persian” or “Arabian”. Such ridiculous rivalries have also crossed borders into Pakistan since our language shares both Arab and Persian lineage. Saudi-trained clerics at Pakistani mosques are quick to rebuke anyone who says “ Khuda Hafiz”, insisting instead on the Arabic version “Allah Hafiz”! For God’s sake, let us stop such semantic skirmishes!

I was made acutely aware of the depth of this rivalry between Arabs and Persians during my time in Qatar earlier this year. Since Qatar shares a major gas field with Iran, both countries have relatively cordial relations with each other. This has raised alarm among many of the other Arab states and was a major reason why Egypt did not send a high-level delegation to the Arab League summit hosted by Qatar earlier this year.

Apart from linguistic differences, the most critical cause for the Arab-Persian rift remains the theological divergence between Shias and Sunnis. The hatred between both groups is acute as the United States has discovered most bitterly from its misadventure in Iraq. While the United States can clearly not play any role in resolving the theological clash, it can certainly try to learn from the Iraqi experience and recognize the importance of Iran as a regional player in any conflict resolution strategy.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has also had another insidious side effect — the rise of the Taliban and other Salafi fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the rise of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Let us not forget that the major fracture during the Afghan civil war was the accentuation of Sunni identity among the Pashtuns and Shia identity among the Hazaras.

Given its size and more arcane interpretations of theology, the Saudi influence on regional politics is arguably more problematic than the Iranian influence — though both must be simultaneously tackled. America has been so focused on letting the Saudis be a foil against Iranian influence that they have not held the regime accountable for incubating radical ideologies that have come back to haunt them as well as others in the region. The key to improving the situation in the region is for the United States to have a meaningful and early engagement with Iran so that some of the hostility in the region can be moderated more directly.

If there is any silver lining to the dark cloud of the Iraq War, it may well be the opportunity it has now provided the Americans to interact with the Iranians, who are on very friendly terms with the new Iraqi government. Iraq is a country whose demographics (55 percent Shia and 40 percent Sunni) are such that it could very well be a future exemplar for Shia-Sunni unity. However, the only way that is possible is for the Saudis and the Iranians to stop fighting proxy wars against each other at the behest of other states. The United States can play an important role in this regard, particularly because of its influence on the Saudis.

What remains is to have some credible assurance from Iran that if the United States resumes diplomatic ties, then the saber-rattling against Israel and support for Hizbullah can be contained. However, here too the Saudi-Iranian connection may need to be made. The peace proposal from King Abdullah on Arab recognition of Israel if the occupation of post-1967 lands is ended and a Palestinian state is created could be presented to the Iranians as part of regional peace plan.

Interestingly enough, Israel, Iran and the United States have engaged in significant dealings going back to the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration. Indeed, Iran is one of the few Muslim countries to still have a sizeable Jewish population and thus has more to gain with having better ties with Israel.

In his recent book titled Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, the United States and Israel ( Yale University Press), the Swedish-Iranian scholar Trita Parsi meticulously documents these dealings and offers presented by Iran to recognize Israel as part of grand bargain for US recognition of Iran as a regional power alongside the Arab states. The ingredients for a great and lasting rapprochement between America and the Muslim world lie squarely in appreciating these connections.

No doubt Al Qaeda remnants that harbor intransigent worldviews about other faith traditions will still need to be fought but the task will be far easier if these other fractures in the Muslim world can be healed. Let us hope that President Obama can show true leadership in bridging that most consequential Gulf between Arabia and Persia with “courage, rectitude and resolve”, as he has promised to do in his speech.

(Dr Saleem H Ali is Associate Professor of Environmental Planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His most recent book is Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s madrassas, Oxford University Press, 2009)

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