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Europe and the Middle East:
Dialogue Holds the Key, Inter-Faith Meet Told

Javid Hassan

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RIYADH, 17 January 2004 - A well-known German Arabist and diplomat has said that dialogue with the Muslim world, rather than establishing a "balance of terror," was the only alternative to the war on terrorism.

Addressing an inter-faith dialogue organized by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), Dr. Gunter Mulack, commissioner for the Dialogue with the Islamic World at the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin, also criticized the US which is championing the global war on terrorism.

"The arrogance of a super power is a problem for the world, as 80 percent of the people think that what the US is doing is wrong," Dr. Mulack told the meeting. Other speakers included Arab diplomats and scholars.

The inter-faith dialogue, WAMY's first, sought to bring representatives of different cultures on the same platform for an exchange of ideas on ending the confrontation between the Muslim world and the West.

Initiating the dialogue, Dr. Mulack said the current cycle of violence was the cumulative result of various factors - political as well as socio-economic. From the Western perspective, the war on terrorism was the offshoot of a US-led drive to bring down regimes engaged in producing weapons of mass destruction or threatening regional peace as well as the security of the United States.

From the Middle East perspective, it was the double standard of the US, its arrogant behavior in the conduct of diplomacy, and its tendency to dictate terms to the international community, he said. The Arab world, he said, should try to get its acts together and address some of the pressing concerns in the region. Educational reforms were imperative since the world was moving toward a knowledge-based society. The Arab world should also take steps to expand the educational and employment opportunities for women so that they could play a useful role in society. Dr. Mulack also referred to the legal system of the Arab world and cited various studies that suggested judicial reforms in the interest of good governance.

Speaking on behalf of the Arab participants, Dr. Towfiq Qusaier, former secretary-general of WAMY, said that when the US needed the support of Muslims to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, it had no qualms in seeking the help of the Mujahedeen. "Now that their mission has been accomplished, suddenly we have become terrorists."

Dr. Ibrahim Al-Quaied, former assistant secretary-general of WAMY, said the US was practising double standards with its blatant support to Israel against the Palestinians. It also gave its unqualified support to some dictatorial regimes so long as they served the US interest. They were then dumped, he said, referring to what happened in Iraq. Shaikh Jaafer Idris, president of American Open University in Washington and a former Sudanese diplomat, said the West has a problem in dealing with Muslims and others.

Europe May Be the Key to the Middle East this Year

It would be a dangerous mistake to assume that the most important events in the Middle East this year will take place in Iraq, or even between Israelis and Palestinians. It would be just as dangerous to assume that the crucial outside player in the Middle East this year will be the United States.

The two other places to watch are Turkey, with its hopes of being locked into the West by achieving a serious pledge of eventual membership in the European Union (EU), and Iran, where the British, French and German foreign ministers late last year secured at least a promise that Iranian nuclear ambitions would be brought under international supervision and, with luck, control.

Next month, the Iranian people go to the polls to elect a new Majlis, or Parliament. The conservative ayatollahs, who have used their domination of the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards to frustrate the reformist hopes of the Majlis and of the elected President Mohammad Khatami, are determined to ensure that the next one will present no such political threat. Indeed, they have used every judicial device, including some palpably illegal ones, to block and intimidate reformist candidates from standing, and to censor reformist media. Their central tactic has been, and this is not a joke, to go around the country stirring up apathy.

Most indications suggest that in any representative election, the reformists would easily win. As a result, the ayatollahs are seeking to depress the vote, as they successfully managed to do last February in municipal elections, when the turnout in the main cities fell below 15 percent. Since the conservative clergy is good at getting its own supporters to the polls, a low turnout gives them a chance of electing a conservative Majlis.

The immediate consequences would probably be an abrogation of the nuclear deal with the Europeans and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and a great deal more trouble sent across the border into Iraq. There could even be some form of Islamist solidarity or understanding with Al-Qaeda. The longer-term consequences could be dire: more student uprisings, more bloody repression, possibly even the horrors of civil war.

The Bush administration seems to understand this in a strategic way. Bear in mind that most of the criticisms of US policy in Iraq, not least those by President George W. Bush's Democratic rivals for the presidency, were formulated before the capture of Saddam Hussein, before Iran agreed to submit to intensified inspections of its nuclear facilities by the IAEA, before Libya's leader Moammar Gadhafi surrendered his nuclear ambitions and accepted inspections by British and American experts and before Bush's important speech on encouraging the Arab world to move toward democratic reforms.

Bush has dared to cut through the Gordian Knot of decades of failed policy in the region by arguing: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe." The US administration's grand strategy now looks considerably more coherent, if still highly daunting.

Even though the ability of the US and its allies to influence the Iranian election is limited, Iran will be an important test. The West is not helpless. The BBC and the Voice of America broadcast in Farsi, and the Iranian diaspora, with its satellite TV transmissions, has proven in the past to have a significant penetration potential in Iran. The message that must be pressed to as wide an Iranian audience as possible is not how they should vote, but simply that the world is watching their democracy and urging that they should turn out to the polls to vote as they wish.

A crucial role will be played by the EU, whose "big three" of France, Britain and Germany have a deal to defend. They won the argument in Tehran by stressing that any Iranian hopes of a long-sought trade deal with the EU would depend on resolving the nuclear question. The trade deal, which the limping Iranian economy needs, remains conditional on Iran's continued cooperation with the IAEA. And even if one accepts that it was not the Europeans alone, but the double play combination of the US bad cop and the EU good cop, that persuaded Iran to compromise, the EU remains a central player.

The EU has an even more critical role to play in Turkey. Legally, Turkey's formal candidacy for entry into the EU was accepted at the Helsinki summit of December 2000. This should mean that once Turkey meets the EU's Copenhagen criteria for membership, by demonstrating (like new members from Eastern Europe) that it adheres to minimum standards of free speech, democracy and the rule of law, the accession process begins.

But there is massive public opposition, as measured by opinion polls, to the strategic necessity of bringing the most secular and democratized state in the Islamic world into the largely Christian club of Europe. If the Christians rebuff the Turks once more when Osama bin Laden and the Islamists are preaching new jihads and wars of civilization, the prospects of rallying moderate Muslims to either the war on terrorism or to Bush's call for democratic reforms are going to shrivel.

For once, the key to American policy in the Middle East may not lie in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or even Iraq. It rests, for better or worse, with the Europeans and maybe with the opposition Iranian broadcasters.

Javid Hassan is a Senior Reporter for Arab News. He is based in Riyadh.

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hagalil.com 01-02-2004



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