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NURAY MERT >Another disastrous project for the Middle East

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Another disastrous project with the name “peace” is on its way, with U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent consequent visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel revealing the pillars of this new policy.  The new administration is appealing to the U.S.’s so-called old Sunni allies in search of a rehabilitation of Muslims’ relations with Israel, and the interests and willingness seem mutual. 

I have always thought that better relations between Muslim countries and Israel could help regional peace efforts in general - and between Israel and Palestinians in particular. I have always believed that the Muslim world’s acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist is key for peace in the region. I also think one of the best remedies is to get rid of anti-Semitism from Muslim countries and minds. 

However, the new Middle East project has nothing to with peace in the region or in minds. First of all, it is based entirely on the idea of enmity against Iran and its allies. As such, it is not right to define it as a peace project; on the contrary, it is doomed to further stoke sectarian flames, provoking more regional conflicts and hostilities. It is also based on utter hypocrisy in the name of political and economic pragmatism: The Sunni regimes seem eager to cooperate with Israel as long as it remains a big secret, thus avoiding scrutiny from Arabic public opinion. 

In fact, they have long been trying to convince their publics that Iran and Shiism is the biggest enemy of the Muslim world. Back in 2008, Kind Abdullah II of Jordan was saying that the major threat to the region was a “Shia Crescent,” and senior Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi was announcing Shiism as the new heretical threat. This policy played a major role in shaping the Syrian affair and its subsequent proxy war. It also failed to address the fact of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world and minds, in fact it only reinforced hypocrisy. Sunni sectarianism against Shiites was reinforced, added to the anti-Semitism that continued in the Arab street.  

Some may argue that “pragmatism” (which is often a euphemism for hypocrisy) may play a positive role, but so far it has turned out to be disastrous in the affairs of the Middle East and the Muslim world in general. After Islamism was reinforced in the fight against communism during the Cold War, jıhadism was fostered in order to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. The idea of the West supporting the “pragmatic” politics of so-called moderate Islamists followed, amid hopes it would lead to Muslim democracies and a compromise with the West. Pro-Islamist politics were thus promoted through the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Only after the debacle of the Arab Spring was it understood that there is no moderate, democratic Islamism. 

In fact, the story of Western support for Islamism goes back to end of the 18th century conquest of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte. Since then rival Western powers have contested with each other to help to the modern invention of Islamism. The politics of Islamism is the product of that contest, as has been the expression of anti-Western/anti-modern resentment in Muslim societies. The idea of politicizing the Caliphate along modern political lines existed in the minds of the British who appealed to the Ottoman sultan of the time to preach obedience to Indian Muslims during the Sepoy mutiny of 1856, long before the Islamist politics of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II.

I do not mean to say it was only Western powers that invented and reinforced Islamic fundamentalism, paying a heavy price in the end. But their contribution should not be overlooked in order not to repeat the same mistakes. Besides, it is not they who pay the heaviest price for such blunders; it is Muslim societies that suffer most from the politics of the manipulation of religion. 

The Saudi regime may be thought of as a useful ally in the short run, but it is a fundamentalist regime that is ultimately a more destabilizing force in the region than Iran. The Iranian regime also deserves criticism, but no peace is possible in the region without recognizing Tehran and its allies.

May/29/2017

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