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Let the West Make Peace With Islam First

Dr. Mariam Al-Oraifi

Every time there is some kind of policy proposal or strategic vision for the Middle East region, it becomes a controversial issue here. The reason is that people in the Middle East see things differently from what the West envisions for them and believe that Western governments do not fully understand their political culture. This is usually followed by accusations of conspiracies and allegations of neoimperialism to subdue the region to serve the West's economic interests and impose its political hegemony.

Recently, the United States proposed a Greater Middle East Initiative in reaction to the last 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report, which sets forth the roots of Arab underdevelopment: A deficit of freedom, lack of women's empowerment and educational backwardness. Observers in the area perceive this new US initiative as resembling the Helsinki accord, signed in 1975 by 35 nations including the US, Soviet Union and almost all European countries. Helsinki was designed to recognize disputed post-World War II borders and establish a mechanism for settling other disagreements to improve security and promote cooperation. The Western countries then believed that by protecting human rights and encouraging freedom, they would instigate the demise of Communism in the East.

The Bush administration wants to introduce the new initiative to minimize the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism, which is spreading. The United States has made it clear it does not want to "go it alone" but would like the collaboration of EU countries. It indicated it would try to lobby for support during the NATO and G-8 summits in June. Yet the Europeans view the initiative with skepticism. They insist that it should not be dictated to them but rather presented, in agreement with the parties concerned, within the framework of a security partnership in support of reform and democracy. They also believe that political change and reform cannot progress in the Middle East without settling the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The initiative produced conflicting reactions in the Greater Middle East. Some believe that this is a continuation of what the Americans started in Iraq but through peaceful means. Others argue that it is more like a US-sponsored neocolonialism and that Washington is trying to involve Europe only to guarantee UN and global support.

People in the region acknowledge that other countries have surpassed them in development; they lag behind in economic productivity and have not been able to move ahead with political reform. However, they insist that the blame is not solely theirs but should also be placed on US policies in the Middle East over the past decades.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, numerous wars were fought in the Middle East, ignited directly or indirectly either by West European states or the United States. The 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars were related to the Arab-Israeli conflict which cost human lives, drained resources, and left the region with economic difficulties, crushing deficits and arrested development. The countries involved directly in these wars were Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. But the Gulf countries took part indirectly by funding military programs or imposing the oil embargo. Then, there was the 1975-1989 Lebanese civil war, the US-sponsored Mujahedeen fighting against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1978 Iranian uprising against the Shah's regime, the 1980-1988 Iraqi-Iranian war, the first Gulf War and, last but not least, the second Gulf War and the US occupation of Iraq. This was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Apart from these major wars, there are numerous other conflicts such as the Algeria-Morocco dispute over the Sahara desert, the Pakistani-Indian conflict over Kashmir, the Algerian civil war, the north-south war in Sudan, the Yemen war, border disputes between several Gulf states, the Eritrea-Ethiopian war, the Somalia war. All this had its impact on the greater Middle East as a whole.

Not only did it traumatize families with the loss of lives of loved ones, it also devastated many others psychologically, their feelings of anger and hostility exacerbated by depression and humiliation.

Muslims in times of crisis tend to turn to God and His Holy Book looking for salvation. This is probably a reason for the surge in conservatism in most of the countries in the Greater Middle East area including secular Turkey. The greater the interference or pressures from the West on these countries - whether peacefully by encouraging reform and democracy or militarily by invading them or economically by imposing sanctions and isolation - the more people turn to fundamentalism. This can eventually turn into militancy, as was the case in Iran during the Shah's regime, leading to the Islamic revolution.

Ideally, defending freedom, encouraging political reform and ensuring human rights are all popular demands that should come from within. They are not strategic goals for countries from without. If the United States and the West seek security partnerships with the Greater Middle Eastern countries and propose economic cooperation in the sincere hope of achieving progress and prosperity there, shouldn't the West make peace with Islam first?

Dr. Mariam Al-Oraifi is a Saudi academic. Arab News arabnews.com

The Islamic Movement:
Its Assumed Political And Cultural Position
Al-Hayat, March 7, 2004, In this article, Gharaybe addresses the question "How can the wider Islamic movement go back to its original political and cultural position of contributing to development and reform instead of being a political and security burden?" Giving a brief history of the Islamic movement, he argues that it no longer represents the opinions of the public it represents.

Transatlantic Gaps:
European perceptions, America's 'greater Middle East'
The Daily Star, March 4, 2004, Perthes addresses the European view on American's Greater Middle East plan. He concludes that although European policy-makers also wish to bridge transatlantic gaps, and that they will not say 'no' to the American initiative, "they will certainly try to leave their mark on any common transatlantic plan that will emerge from it."

Common Ground News Service February 20, 2004
CGNews promotes constructive perspectives and dialogue about current Middle East issues.

From the Common Ground News Service
hagalil.com 22-03-2004



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