Win Minds Before Wars

Indian Express, February 12, 2003

According to a report in the New York Times, ‘‘Pakistan, a nation not entirely sure of its bearings, is awash in anti-Western polemics. In a country where Christian churches are being stoned because Washington is in charge of the war, there is a daily diet of visceral anti-Americanism and crude anti-Semitism in the press, both English and Urdu’’. The story sounds current with the exception that stoning of churches has graduated to occasional bombing. But the quote is from a description of Pakistan’s reaction during the Gulf War of 1991 published on February 1 that year.
During the first Iraq war, the US led a coalition including most Arab-Muslim countries. Pakistan’s civilian Prime Minister (Nawaz Sharif) supported the US and Saudi Arabia while the military chief, General Aslam Beg propounded the thesis of ‘‘strategic defiance’ — the notion that the US will not be able to maintain its global preponderance for very long provided that smaller nations keep defying its will. The Islamic parties led anti-American demonstrations, promising to transform Iraq and Kuwait into new Vietnams for the US military. Washington worried about the anti-American protests and the Pakistani government responded by expelling an Iraqi diplomat, blaming him for distributing money to orchestrate the demonstrations. In the end, however, none of the happenings in Pakistan affected the outcome of the war. The US managed to liberate Kuwait without much defiance, a new Vietnam was not created and the US status as the world’s sole superpower was not altered.

Twelve years later, Pakistan does not have a credible civilian government. There is no rift between the army chief and his Prime Minister about policy toward Iraq. But General Beg is still articulating his thesis about the inevitability of multi-polarity and the religious parties are still leading anti-American marches. Of course, a lot has changed. In 1991, Pakistan had just been subjected to US sanctions over its nuclear programme, leading its diplomats and analysts to argue that the US withdrawing its economic and military assistance fuelled anti-Americanism. Now, the sanctions are over and Pakistan is the recipient of considerable US largesse in grants, new loans and loan rescheduling. Washington is even trying to write off some outstanding loans to help the Pakistani economy.

If the imposition of sanctions instigated the demonstrations during the first Iraq war, one cannot help wonder why the end of sanctions has not won the US any friends among the Pakistani public and elite. Is anti-Americanism a deep-rooted sentiment in the country, unaffected by US aid policy, or has it become a strategy periodically invoked to seek a higher price for Pakistan’s continued alliance with Washington? Pakistan is not alone in this quandary of simultaneous alliance and hatred involving the United States. Muslims have been suspicious of western motives in the West Asia ever since Lawrence of Arabia led the Arab rebellion against the Turkish Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The Muslim empire collapsed, the Arabs were divided by lines in the sand and Lawrence’s promises of Arab independence turned out to be a well laid out trap to pave way for Anglo-French supremacy.

In the Muslim mind, the Americans have only taken forward the imperial mission of Colonel Lawrence since the Second World War albeit with greater sophistication. Conspiracy theories, rather than hard evidence, educate Muslim public opinion from Morocco to Indonesia. Instead of identifying and addressing this problem, successive US administrations have ignored the Muslim Street, being content instead to depend upon friendly potentates and dictators. But such dependence also makes the US vulnerable to the manipulation of its allies. The deployment of anti-Americanism among the people, to seek higher rent for cooperation with the US, is part of that manipulative process.

US decision-makers are confident that once they start bombing Iraq, there will be little effective opposition to their operations. Tens of thousands might march in the streets of Cairo or Karachi but the demonstrations will not impede the US military. They will be a passing phenomenon as they were during the 1991 Gulf war and the Afghan war in 2001. The only factor ignored in this analysis is the significance of anti-American sentiment as an instrument of recruitment and motivation by extremist groups. While the Pentagon and the state department plan in terms of immediate and five-year scenarios, groups like al-Qaeda think and talk about conflict spread over generations.

The US is spending considerable resources and energy on combating the actions of terrorists and little on minimising the influence of their ideas. US policy would be more effective if it was based on understanding Muslim sentiment and the history behind it. In the case of Iraq, the US made its preference for war against Saddam Hussein obvious long before Secretary Powell was called upon to present evidence justifying military action. This has allowed Muslim skeptics to argue that the evidence has been tailored to justify a war instead of the decision for war depending on the evidence.

If Muslim public opinion had not been such a low priority in the US government’s scheme of things, discussion of evidence of Saddam Hussein’s conduct earlier might have left him few friends among the world’s Muslims. Saddam was avowedly anti-religion until the 1991 Gulf war, after which he started his pretense of championing Islamic causes. In doing so, he played on a historic tendency that has characterised Muslim behaviour since the Middle Ages. Muslims turn to literalism in interpreting religion and admire defiant militants whenever their Ummah (community of believers) is threatened by the military might of non-Muslims.

The sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 is an important example. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Helugu Khan, conquered the then capital of the Muslim caliphate, killing its people and burning down its great library The House of Wisdom. Muslims interpreted this military defeat as a result of their embracing pluralism and worldly knowledge. The emphasis on Ijtihad (reasoned spiritual struggle) was abandoned with renewed focus on militant Jihad (holy war). Soon thereafter, Ibn Taimiyah (1262-1327), a Syrian theologian, laid the foundations of a militant revival that remains the theological font of all counter-reformation thinking among Muslims.

While Colin Powell probably has never thought about this episode in history, Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda have both referred to the 1258 sacking of Baghdad in recent statements. The allusion is significant for true believers and for those who seek to defy rather than coexist with and learn from unbelievers. For militant Islamists, the military defeat and humiliation at the hand of the Mongols marked the beginnings of a religious revival. In less than a century, the Mongol conquerors had converted to Islam and Islamic power, uprooted from the Arabian heartland, had been re-established in Turkey and Northern India.

Islamist movements are already arguing that the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the coming sacking of Baghdad should be seen as cataclysmic events that would purify Muslim souls and prepare them for an ideological battle with the west. The potentates and dictators backed by the US so far have only helped Islam’s counter-reformation by stifling debate and aligning with theological hardliners to protect their own position. If after the war in Iraq, there is still no change in what some Western scholars have started calling ‘‘the victim mindset’’ in Pakistan and the rest of the Muslim world, the cycle witnessed at the time of the 1991 Gulf war will continue to be repeated. As it is being repeated right now!