Mixed messages follow September 11 (SCMP
So far, so good. The initial instinct to lash out blindly
has been curbed. And the rest of the world can feel grateful that the
US has a man of mature judgement as Secretary of State and that the
US' allies in Europe have been sufficiently supportive to claim some
influence over the response to September 11.
Even the outlines of some silver linings are appearing.
President Bush' s support for a Palestinian state raises the possibility
that this time around - unlike at the time of the Gulf War - the US
will actually do something to reverse Israel's expansionism by settlement
and force it back to the Oslo accords. Whilst the Palestine issue may
be only a minor part of Bin Laden's agenda it remains the source of
much of the region's hostility to the west - among non-Arab Muslims
as well as Arabs of all faiths.
There is a chance that Syria will see this as an opportunity
to come in from the cold - though it difficult to see how it can abandon
support for Hamas until Israel itself is restrained. The situation should
strengthen the reformist elements in Iran headed by President Khatami.
The Russians have moved swiftly to strengthen their military ties with
Tehran. This may make the US uneasy but should influence Washington
to consider where US national interests in the region really lie. China
can sit back and get praise for merely verbal support for the US meanwhile
gaining advantage from the West's tussle with Islamic extremism and
the marginalising, for now, of the missile defence issue.
It is quite possible now that Afghanistan itself may
finally be delivered from its years of agony. Money and food will be
powerful weapons in detaching the Taliban from the local community even
in its Pushtu heartland. It has always been possible to buy the loyalty
of many tribal leaders which is one reason why the war has lasted so
long. It must by now have dawned on all the neighbours - Pakistan, Russia,
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Iran and now the US - that not only is the demise
of the Taliban in their interest. They all need to stop using Afghanistan
as a place for proxy wars whether over ideology or the ethnic links
An effort must be made to put Afghanistan back together
again as a neutral, multi-ethnic buffer state. If they can agree that
that is desirable, it should be possible. It might be especially difficult
for Pakistan, with its own large Pushtu population. But it is perhaps
even more important for Pakistan -- the long term alternative might
be the dismemberment of Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Defeating the
Taliban politically and covertly will take time but may be a surer means
of dealing with them than an open war. They will try to present themselves
as god-fearing victims of the enemies of Islam so that even as they
lose they will increase the sense of injustice among Muslims who ought
to despise them.
So much for the optimistic side. There is also plenty
of negative fall-out from September 11. One must wonder whether the
concentration of effort on the Taliban and Ben Laden's camps in Afghanistan
is not setting us up for disappointment. The Taliban may be sheltering
him but these medieval tribalists have a certain simple logic to them.
They have a limited amount in common with the perpetrators of the World
Trade Centre attack.
These were educated people with a messianic sense mission,
of purification by destruction - a view of themselves and the world
that the rest of us find very difficult to penetrate. They swim more
easily in our modern urban sea than in the rock dump that is Afghanistan.
Will getting rid of the Taliban, desirable though it is, tackle the
problem of the Saudis, Egyptians, Algerians etc bent not on ruling Afghanistan
but undermining the west?
The Afghan campaign may make good theatre but does it
go the heart of the matter? A negative for the region could be a serious
deterioration in India/Pakistan relations, and perhaps the improvement
that was budding in US-India ties. India was quick to express support
for the US but by so doing helped Pakistan make up its mind that its
most sensible course was to go along with its old ally the US, hoping
for some support for its position on Kashmir and figuring that it could
contain the Muslim extremists who are vocal but have never received
much support at the polls. Kashmir represents the fundamental problem
of President Bush declaring a global war not just on the perpetrators
of September 11 but "global terrorism".
The line between terrorist and freedom fighter is a thin
one and a definition would help. Pakistan's views the Kashmiri insurgents
it backs as "freedom fighters" even though some of their bomb attacks
would appear to fall into most definitions of terrorism as surely as
were the actions of the Stern Gang members in Palestine who went on
to become ministers in the government of Israel.
The needs of the hour are also an opportunity for old
fashioned ex-Communist megalomaniac thug rulers of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan
to get on with more suppression of dissidents in the name of fighting
fundamentalism, and for China to present its suppression of Uighur nationalism
as proper and beneficial. Conceivably these current alliances of convenience
will backfire and drive democrats and nationalists into the arms of
the religious right.
From Europe come warning signs about a backlash against
Islam which could be extremely dangerous for a continent which already
has large Muslim minorities. Europe, with its very low birth rates,
may also have little choice but to absorb more people from North Africa
and the Middle East to keep its economy on even keel and keep these
poor neighbours from open hostility. Italy's prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's
indiscreet comments about the superiority of western Christian civilization
to Islamic civilisation was just the tip of a large iceberg.
It may not have been a surprise coming from Berlusconi,
the media tycoon who vies with Rupert Murdoch for combining ruthlessness
with boorishness But sentiments only marginally less prejudiced have
become commonplace in the European media, including that pillar of British
respectability the Financial Times. One of its economics writers treated
readers to a thesis about the apparent incompatibility of Islam and
modern economic development. He did not bother to back this up with
any facts - for example to compare the largest Muslim countries' (excluding
those rich only from oil) economic growth rates of the past 40 years
with those either of the average in the developing world, or between
Muslim nations in one region compared with their non-Muslim neighbours.
In east Asia that would mean comparing Indonesia with, say, China or
Vietnam, or Malaysia with Thailand, Burma and the Philippines. Elsewhere
in the world it would mean, for example, comparing India with Bangladesh.
Turkey with Rumania, etc. Equally one could compare Iran or Egypt with
Colombia or Brazil. There are of course plenty of horror stories in
the Muslim world - but so there are in the Buddhist one, as witness
Burma and Cambodia. Latin America despite Christianity, cultural links
to Europe and North America and an abundance of natural resources has
a poorer record of growth and even of social progress such as in women's
education than the average of major Muslim countries over the past 40
years. Despite the protestations of western leaders that they are not
prejudiced against Islam, levels of ignorance are profound and it is
not surprising if Muslim-majority countries, including such aggressively
secular states as Turkey, believe that Mr Berlusconi is more representative
of Europe than those who criticised him. One month after the horror
of September 11, the potential of reactions to be a power for good or
for the creation of more mayhem is finely balanced. ends