Worlds apart?

The US war against terrorism is creating a less stable world - but not because of a Muslim uprising.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Every day the Western media shows another violent Muslim demonstration against the US strikes on Afghanistan – crowds attacking the US embassy in Indonesia, Palestinian police gunning down demonstrators, Muslim activists being shot at in Pakistan. Every day, we see another Bush or Blair effigy burn.

While Tony Blair goes on Arab TV to try to convince the Muslim world that his war ‘is not against Islam’, sends his ministers to mosques and reads the Koran, commentators point to the rallies in the East as evidence that his efforts have failed.

But does the high-profile news coverage exaggerate the extent of Muslim unrest? Why is every demonstration in the East making the news in the West?

Although there are widespread anti-Western feelings, it does not look like the world is about to split into two hostile camps. Instead, it seems that the US war against terrorism is causing a more complicated destabilisation – inflaming long-running local conflicts, and gradually corroding nation states.

The bipolar pro-/anti-Western split certainly exists in the language of both sides. In his ‘propaganda video’ Osama bin Laden talked about the world being divided into two camps ‘without a third’ – the camp of the believers and the camp of the heretics. Writing in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram Islamist movement expert Diaa Rashwan noted that ‘bin Laden addressed his comments to only two groups: “Every Muslim”, and “America and its people”. He called on the former to “rise up to the rescue of religion… to remove corruption from the peninsula of Mohamed”.’ (1)

US propaganda has also used these bipolar terms – ‘either you are with us in the fight against terrorism, or you are against us’, Bush has said repeatedly. ‘Our war is against terrorists and any state who harbours terrorists.’

Some see this rhetoric transposed into reality. ‘Osama bin Laden is opening deep and dangerous fault lines throughout the societies of the Middle East’, writes Peter Beaumont in the UK Observer (2). ‘His actions and the West’s reaction to them have become, for a substantial and radicalised minority, a kind of shibboleth that marks you on either side of an ideological divide: are you for – or against – America and the West?’

In fact, the West has tried hard not to open up such conflictual divides. Middle Eastern states have not really had to choose whether they are for or against America. This is not like the Second World War, where you were either on the side of the Axis or the Allies, or the Cold War, where you were either on the side of the West or the Soviet Union. Most states at the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Qatar last week held back from condemning the attacks on Afghanistan, despite Taliban appeals to do so. But nor did they come out in strong support – instead making more moderate appeals for the containment of the conflict, or for evidence of the guilt of bin Laden (3).

Some of the states have issued contradictory statements – such as Indonesia, whose deputy leader called for the bombing to stop, but whose president (who has signed up to the US coalition) merely urged ‘caution’ (4). Those states that have cooperated with the USA have done so on strictly limited grounds – Pakistan, for example, allows use of its airbases for ‘logistical’ support, but not for bombing raids.

And the ambivalence of Middle Eastern leaders, in many senses, mirrors the ambivalence of their populations. Although they have received a lot of coverage, it is worth noting that the demonstrations are not, in general, that big. James Rubin, assistant US secretary of state in the Clinton administration, wrote in the UK Independent on Sunday that ‘in the Palestinian territories, Oman, Pakistan and Indonesia, there are demonstrations. But so far they are much, much smaller than many predicted’ (5).

The Economist commented that, although ‘several hundred [Indonesians] had attempted to storm parliament’ to protest against the strikes, this is ‘a regular tactic’, and that protesters ‘often turn out in much larger numbers’ (6). It is just that the ‘regular tactic’ of larger crowds trying to storm the parliament normally makes a small column in the international section of the papers – if that.

A BBC News Online summary of Pakistani public opinion does not show a society ready to join the jihad: ‘In cities like Karachi or Lahore, where healthy economies and government patronage have spawned an English-speaking, globalised elite, there is no love lost for the Taliban and their rigorous view of Islam. In Karachi, the largest political force the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has openly opposed the Taliban and the Pakistani religious parties that support it….A hard, Islamist extreme has made up its mind to fight against the attacks. A liberal tendency in urban areas sees an opportunity to curb the influence of the Islamists. But in the middle, the vast majority of Pakistani opinion is uneasy with both the “war against terror” and its targets – the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.’ (7)

And some of the demonstrators are not even necessarily pro-Taliban or pro-bin Laden. While angry Iranian crowds in Zahedan, Iran, attacked the Pakistani consulate, some of the Zahedan residents who opposed US attacks were Afghan refugees – fierce opponents of the Taliban – who had fled the Soviet invasion 20 years ago (8).

One of the biggest demonstrations was in the predominantly Hindu area of Calcutta, India, where about 70,000 people staged a peace rally on Sunday – the country’s biggest anti-American protest so far (9). The demonstration was organised by the state’s ruling Left Front coalition government, and drew members of leftist groups and unions as well as intellectuals and students who ‘marched more than 12 km…through the city, entertained by performers singing anti-war folk songs’ – which doesn’t sound so unlike some of the peace demonstrations that have occurred in the West.

As much as demonstrators use language that hails bin Laden and attacks the USA, this is perhaps best understood as a general venting of frustration and a sense of impotence. A number of commentators have noted that the USA has become a figure against which people vent their dissatisfaction. ‘Those who are moved by all this are not only Islamists’, argued Nabil Abdel-Fatah, a secular expert on Islamist radical groups, in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram: ‘Bin Laden is viewed as a hero combating a repressive, mighty force [the USA] that seeks to control everything.’ While this is no doubt destabilising, it is a tenuous basis of support for bin Laden (10).

The Western exaggeration of Islamic protests is the consequence of its own sense of insecurity about this war. Ridden with anxiety, the West jumps back in the face of any Muslim reaction – blowing the pictures up in technicolour. Every time an effigy is set on fire in the Middle East, President Bush feels the flames licking at his toes.

Right from the beginning, Western anxiety has been expressed in a paranoia about upsetting Muslims. It often seems that Blair and Bush are putting more effort into their pro-Muslim propaganda than their vilification of the Taliban. Commentators continually worry that the US air strikes will fuel Muslim wrath, that they will create more terrorists. According to the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, Israeli defence minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer ‘fears that the American attack on Afghanistan will send shockwaves through the Arab and Muslim countries…images of the damage inflicted by the American planes and missiles, especially of Afghan casualties, would whip up an emotional storm in the big Muslim communities’ (11).

But there is no doubt that the war against terrorism will cause instability on the ground – which could well become another problem for the West.

It seems that long-running local conflicts are being aggravated, as each side strives to re-present their case as part of the grand global ‘fight against terrorism’. The conflict between India and Pakistan has sparked off again after 10 months of calm, with India appealing to the USA to support its battle against Muslim ‘terrorists’ in Kashmir. ‘India, having delivered what it calls key evidence of the involvement of Pakistan-based individuals [in] the 11 September strikes to the US is now likely to call for an expansion of Washington’s war on terrorism to Kashmir’, a Western diplomat told one news agency (12).

At a meeting with Indian officials, US secretary of state Colin Powell rewarded India with the statement: ‘The United States and India have been united against terrorism and that includes terrorism directed against India as well.’ (13) Despite the fact that India had been shelling Pakistani positions in Kashmir, all parties (including the Western media) seemed to be trying to paper over the cracks. The Indian foreign minister said his country was ‘committed to improve its relations with Pakistan’, and the BBC’s correspondent gave the diplomatic assessment that ‘in two days of talks, Colin Powell seems to have reassured two of the United States’ key allies [India and Pakistan] and done important work building agreement on the future shape of the Afghan government’.

Pakistan, meanwhile, has sought assurances that America will not bomb Taliban positions north of Kabul, which would allow for a Northern Alliance offensive, as officials in Islamabad believe that an alliance-led government would be hostile to Pakistan’s interests (14). The USA is left in the impossible position of trying to build closer ties with both of the warring sides.

And after the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi on 17 October by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Israel’s inner security cabinet threatened to label the Palestinian Authority a ‘terror entity’ unless Arafat handed over those responsible, while one cabinet spokesman commented that ‘This kind of shelter for terror is exactly how the Taliban operates in Afghanistan’ (15).

The inflaming of hostilities, with the USA struggling to bridge an ever-widening gap, seems inevitable.

The USA’s pursuit of a boundary-less war against terrorism is likely to undermine the authority of already unstable nation states and cause them to fragment, threatening to repeat the destructive patterns seen in the former Yugoslavia. As many have pointed out, the collapse of the Taliban is likely to lead to a state of chaos and anarchy in Afghanistan, which may well be worse than the regime itself.

But there is a more subtle undermining of other states. In its war against terrorism, the USA is asking for the right to intervene in the affairs of many other countries (which countries, exactly, it is unable to say at present). The reaction to the freezing of bank accounts of members of the Saudi elite is just one example of how US actions against terrorism are already causing friction(16).

And given the lack of any specific plan among the US war coalition, this destabilising effect could be the most wide-ranging and pernicious. So although we are unlikely to see a pro-/anti- Western faultline dividing the world, the fight against terrorism will still leave the West with more than it bargained for.

Rather than vanquishing the ‘evil’ of terrorism, or facing the explosion of Muslim wrath, the West may well find itself in a muddier kind of mess.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

spiked-issues: After 11 September

(1) Addressing ‘the nation’, targeting America, Al-Ahram, 11 October 2001

(2) ‘The roots of Islamic anger’, Observer, 14 October 2001

(3) Analysis: Bush’s volatile coalition, BBC News Online, 12 October 2001; The Economist, 13 October

(4) Tear Gas Used on Indonesia Protesters, Associated Press, Monday 15 Oct 2001, posted on Afghan Daily

(5) Independent on Sunday, 14 October 2001

(6) The Economist, 13 October

(7) Analysis: Pakistan’s fault lines, BBC News Online, 10 October 2001

(8) Anti-US protests worldwide, Guardian, 13 October, 2001

(9) 70,000 people staged Anti-US demos in India, 15 October 2001,

(10) Striking hazardous chords, Al-Ahram 11 October 2001

(11) Fear and loathing, Ha’aretz, 18 October 2001

(12) AFP, posted on the Dawn website, 15 October 2001

(13) Powell gets Indian backing, BBC News Online, 17 October 2001

(14) Powell gets Indian backing, BBC News Online, 17 October 2001

(15) Financial Times, 18 October 2001

(16) Saudi Denies Charge That He Gave bin Laden Aid, New York Times, 15 October 2001

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Topics Politics


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