Pakistan has an important place in the Islamic world. It is the only Muslim country that was founded on the basis of religion. Israel is the only other state that came into existence to serve a particular religious group. Both countries were created about the same time. But there are differences, of course. Israel could accommodate the entire Jewish population in the world within its borders. It is committed to doing precisely that. The world’s Muslim population is now estimated at 1.6 billion.
Pakistan has about 195 million Muslims or about 12 per cent of the total in the world that subscribe to the Islamic faith. What these numbers mean is that Pakistan’s policymakers have to be concerned about developments in the parts of the world where Muslims are living under some kind of stress. That is why developments in the Middle East are of great concern to the people in Pakistan.
The Muslim world was delivered a serious blow by America’s erratic president. On the afternoon of December 6th, Donald Trump, speaking from the White House, told the world that he had decided to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state of Israel. He said that in 1995 the US Congress passed a resolution that the United States should move its capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, for almost a quarter century the American presidents continued to issue waivers for not implementing the decision. Setting aside that history, the current American president justified his move by saying that the facts on the ground justified his decision. Ever since the founding of the state of Israel, Jerusalem had been its capital. That is where the government is located and worked from. The houses of the country’s president and prime minister are located in the city. It is also the home of the country’s Supreme Court. But these facts were known all along.
There were other facts. The Muslim world regarded Jerusalem as their religion’s third holiest place, after Makkah and Medinah. Even though in the 1967 war Israel had defeated the Jordanian forces that defended East Jerusalem, its occupation of that part of the city and the West Bank were not recognised by the world community. It was against international law to hold the territory won in a war. It was always recognised that the status of Jerusalem would be part of the agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians whenever the final settlement was reached. By giving to Israel the entire city of Jerusalem, Donald Trump had put himself and his country squarely on the side of the Jewish state. It could no longer be an honest broker, a role it had played ever since the 1967 war. What would be the reaction of the Muslim world to this move by the American president? Would it, paradoxically, split the Muslims into two parts: those who would show only mild unhappiness and those who are likely to be highly agitated? The paradox is that most of the Arabs — the people as well as their governments are likely to shrug their shoulders and move on. On the other hand, in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia the reaction will be sharp and lasting.
This is what a group of journalists writing in The New York Times had to say about the Arab reaction to the Trump decision on Jerusalem: “While Arab leaders have continued to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause, it has slipped in importance, displaced by the Arab Spring, the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the threat of Islamic State, and the contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance. Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, more concerned about their rivalry with Iran, have found their interests increasingly overlapping with those of Israel.”
This analysis is supported by reports that Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and the point-man on the Middle East, had a night-long meeting recently with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman at which the two worked out a plan for settling the Palestinian issue. It will have the Palestinian state made up of the bits and pieces of land that have not been given to the Jewish settlers, East Jerusalem will be reunited with the city’s western part, the city thus formed will be recognised as the capital of the Israeli state, the Palestinian state will work from Ramallah as its capital, it will not have an army of its own, and it will have to guarantee that it will not sponsor terrorist attacks on the Jewish state. With this as the conclusion of the half-century struggle by the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia will be left to focus on Iran.
What we are seeing, therefore, is the move of Sunni part of the Arab world towards countering the growing but unnecessary struggle between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East. Bringing the economist’s perspective to these developments I see two things happening. The Asians in the Muslim world will get further away from both the United States and Saudi Arabia and will be more inclined to work with Iran and China. Iran having invested massively in developing its human resource has a better economic future than the Sunni Arabs. At the same time China’s Road and Belt Initiative will be bring the countries of Muslim Asia into its orbit.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2017.
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