Thursday, July 28, 2005

Wrong epicentres

July 28 2005

Wrong epicentres

PV Vivekanand

"WHAT are all these about? Why are they doing it? Is the world as we know it coming to an end?" Although not without a trace of exaggeration, these questions are asked by many around the world in the wake of this month's bombings in London and Egypt.
Most people shake their heads in disbelief and seem resigned to accepting that there is something seriously wrong with someone, somewhere for obscure reasons.
It is no such mystery to the people of the region, and they know that the world has not heard the last of such atrocities. Justice has to prevail and the US-UK alliance has to start to recognise that the questions raised need hard and convincing answers.

The answer to the question — "what are all these about" — could be very simple or very complex depending on one's understanding. The simple answer — as the West explains it — is that terrorists are out to inflict as much damage to the Western way of life and thinking and would stop at nothing because they are prodded by "Islamic radicalism." At least that is what British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others would like the world to believe.
But is it as simple as that? Can Blair or his best expert on Islam pinpoint where "radicalism" figure in the faith?
Is the so-called radicalism linked to Muslims' "hatred" for the Western way of life prompted by jealousy, as US President George W Bush and his aides would like the world to believe?
If one were to accept the argument of "hatred," then the immediate question is: Why European nations like Sweden and Latin American countries like Brazil — where the style of life is radically different from that in the Muslim World — are not targeted for attacks?
The complex answer to the first question was perfectly answered by Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa in a recent interview with MSNBC TV. He pointed out that terrorism does not discriminate between people.
"We're angry, sad.  We feel we're all in the same boat, regardless of whatever — where you are, in Europe, in Africa, in the Mideast, in America.  We're all in the same boat," Musa said when asked about the recent bombings. "So, we cannot live with terrorism, waves of terrorism.  That has really sown havoc in many cities.  And the casualties are always innocent civilians," he told interviewer Rita Cosby.
He said security measures were not the sole answer to the challenge and called for solutions to the fundamental causes.
"We cannot defeat terrorism only through security measures.  We have to have a political understanding of the seriousness of the situation, the causes behind that, the effects, the organisations.  So, we must have a comprehensive approach," he said.
There is hostility towards the US in the Arab and Muslim worlds, he said, adding, however, that this is not a blanket attitude.
"It is anti-certain American policies," he said. "There is a huge, strong, solid opposition to the policies of the United States, especially when it comes to the Middle East and the bias in its policy between — towards Israel, at the expense of the other side.  But this is a policy that could change and that should change."
Now, what are the chances of such a change in policy?
Almost impossible, given the present geopolitical realities of the region. And where does that take us? A spiralling confrontation between those discontented with the US policy and those in the US who would not and cannot even think of shifting the American approach to the conflicts in the Middle East?
Blair did refer to the issue, but put that in a different context. He did not talk about any policy shift, but acknowledged that the Arab-Israeli conflict needed to be addressed.
Few would disagree with Blair that terrorist attacks are senseless and would never be a useful tool to achieve anything. It is indeed a folly for terrorists to believe that they could force any country to shift policies under pressure of attacks.
Blair did affirm that the world must make progress on issues used by militants as a reason for violence such as the Middle East conflict.
Core causes
We don't really know how far his thinking went when he admitted that there are core causes.
"There are obviously certain things in government and the international community we have to do to try to take away the legitimate causes upon which people prey," Blair said, adding that these and other issues such as Afghanistan and the Middle East were only used as an excuse by extremists.
"I don't accept they really care about these causes, the perpetrators of this ideology," he said. "There is no justification for suicide bombing whether in Palestine, Iraq in London, in Egypt, in Turkey, anywhere, in the United States of America, anywhere. There is no justification for it, period," he said.
"Neither have they any justification for killing people in Israel either," he said.
However, making progress on issues such as Palestinian statehood was "important," Blair said.
"There is a legitimate concern but that doesn't justify in the slightest way the suicide bombings or terrorism, but there is a concern about that and you have to deal with it," he said.
And that is where Blair hit the nail on its head, perhaps unwittingly though.
It is not a simple concern and it could not be addressed without fundamental changes in the Western, mainly American and British, approach to the problem.
It is a question about people's life and their right to live in dignity in their own land. It is not about what is not acceptable to the Islamic faith in the Western way of life. It is about lost lives and homes and the urge for freedom and life with dignity.
In Palestine, the equation is simple for the people. Israel is occupying the land of the Palestinian people and any effort to dislodge the occupation is fruitless as long as the US supports the Jewish state. It is not only support that the US is extending to Israel, but also outright protection from international action against it through forums like the United Nations.
The amount of funds and military supplies that flow to Israel from the US and the American record of vetos against any UN Security Council resolution calling for meaningful action speak for themselves.
Is it any mystery that the US automatically becomes an enemy in the eyes of the Palestinian people?
Again, it has to be remembered, as Musa pointed out, it is not a blanket anti-American hostility. People know that the ordinary American is not even aware of the depth of his or her government's involvement in the Middle East. Their question to the average American is straight: Why is it that you are not aware of what is going on?

Deceptive policies

Again, the people in this part of the world have all known all along of the deceptive policies of the US. No one is taken for a ride when Washington says that it wants peace in the Middle East but it is up to Israel and the Arabs to work out a peace agreement. That posture is clearly seen through. A majority in the region believe that had the US taken its hand off the Arab-Israeli conflict, a solution would have been reached years ago. It was the American way of professing neutrality but heavily lending itself to supporting Israel that is behind the Middle Eastern hostility towards Washington's policies and thus the administration in power itself.
Then another issue is Iraq. As Musa told MSNBC, another policy that needs to change is the US presence in Iraq.
"The best thing for Iraq is to have a plan, a reconciliation among all members of the Iraqis fighting, not to exclude any of the groups, so, reconciliation, a time frame for the withdrawal of the forces," he said.  "A time frame — it's not a question of, you should withdraw today or tomorrow, but a time frame, an agreed time frame," he said. "That would send a message to the people in Iraq and around that it is not a question of, we are not coming to stay, but we are going to leave."
Let us not go into the details. It is clear to the world today that the Bush administration blatantly lied its way into the invasion and occupation of Iraq. People might not cry for Saddam Hussein, but they cry for the people of Iraq today, Zarqawi or no Zarqawi.
As the question of Islamists themselves, it has to be taken into consideration, as noted regional commentator Rami Khoury points out , that "Islamist activist politics, legitimised by and packaged inside a political/military resistance role, is on the rise throughout this region."
"Engaging this force constructively and democratically is an urgent political challenge in the Middle East, and it is not being grasped quickly enough," he says.
But are the Islamist forces at work in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine behind the terror attacks?
Most definitely not. The West has to recognise the difference between them.
Corridors of power
In countries like Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon as well as most other Arab countries, the Islamist forces are seeking political power through the ballot. They know that they could get to the corridors of power if they play their cards right. In some countries, they feel that the system itself is stacked up against them and there is no way people's will would prevail until such time the regimes themselves acccept the inevitability of accepting their people's will.
Islamist groups have made strong headway into regional politics and they would continue to do so, but not because of their rejection of the political system but because of the natural evolution of politics.
Lebanon's Hizbollah is now in the country's government. There is nothing anyone could do about it since Hizbollah represents a good segment of the Lebanese population.
In Jordan, the Islamists are the strongest group. Indeed, they were given seats in the cabinet in the mid-90s because of the legislative clout they gained through electiosn, but they themselves bowed out citing reasons of their own that had to do with the country's peace negotiations with Israel and their efforts to impose certain restrictions in the society that were not acceptable to the people.
In Syria, the regime of Bashar Al Assad is slowly easing the ropes against groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood is accepting indirect help from the US in order to stabilise itself as a political force in the country. And Washington would find itself confronting the group as and when the latter thinks the time is right to assert itself.
In Palestine, Hamas would emerge as a strong political force when elections are held there. Washington is worried about the prospect, but then it is unable to do much because Hamas represents the aspirations of the people to independence. Beyond that, Hamas would its political clout diminishing to a large extent if it were to push the broader agenda of elimination of the state of Israel.

Real threat
To focus on groups like Hamas in the US-led war against terror would be a misguided approach. They are not the source of terror threats. They represent the genuine desire of a people to secure their usurped rights.
The real threat is those disgruntled people who have seen that no matter how much they try there would never be a shift in the US approach to their genuine grievances. They are convinced that the US, instead of realising the need for fairness, justice and evenhandedness, is targeting them with a view to subduing and even eliminating them as a hurdle in way of Israel's quest to keep occupied lands for itself and for dominance in the region. They have understood that the invasion and occupation of Iraq had more to do with protecting Israel's interests than American interests, and they have realised that they are unable to wage a face-to-face battle with the US-Israeli combine and its allies. For them then the best way to hit back is to inflict as much damage as possible through selves or allies.
That is what we are witnessing today. The attacks in London and Sharm Al Sheikh, misguided and unacceptable as they were, are only indicators of the shape of things to come unless those who have the genuine interests of the US and UK in mind realise that the real problem lies in the conscious denial of justice to people.