The widening gap between the Muslim world and America

Published: June 5, 2011
The writer is former vice-president of the World Bank and former finance minister of Pakistan

The writer is former vice-president of the World Bank and former finance minister of Pakistan

US President Barack Obama seems to be the only person of any significance in Washington who seems to understand that the game has changed for his country in the Muslim world — not just in Arab countries but also in those of Islamic faith but of different ethnic origin. Among the non-Arab parts of the Muslim world, the countries where Americans are fast losing influence are Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was lost decades ago in Iran. These four countries have a total population of 350 million, considerably more than the total for the Arab world. Why has this happened?  There are several reasons for this, of these three are particularly important.

The first is the approach adopted by President Obama soon after assuming the American presidency. In a much anticipated speech delivered at Al Azhar University in Cairo on June 4, 2009 the American president said that his country’s approach to the Muslim world will be different while he was in charge of the making of foreign policy in Washington. “We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and the Muslim world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate,” he told his Cairo audience. “The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a cold war in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought about by modernity and globalisation led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.”

President Obama promised to change these attitudes. “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and dignity of all human beings.”

The second reason for the widening of the gap between the West and the Muslim world is the Arab Spring — the string of explosions that have rocked the Arab street in several countries. This has resulted in the demise of two long-serving regimes, and threatens several others. While the West – including the United States – was slow to appreciate the significance of this development, one consequence of this change has become clear. When the history of this extraordinary movement gets to be written, it will be recognised that the address by Obama in Cairo played a big role in emboldening the Arab street.

The policy towards the West in these countries will not be made by authoritarian regimes that could ignore the sentiment of the street. Strong rulers, often supported by their militaries, were able to ignore the aspirations of their people and opt for favoring the strategic positions that suited the West, in particular the United States. Egypt and Pakistan were at the forefront of these moves. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with the state of Israel without asking for the settlement of the Palestine dispute. Pakistan, under three different military regimes, aligned itself closely with Washington, even when some of what it promised to do in return for support by America was not in its strategic interests. With the Muslim street having shown that it can mobilise quickly when the regimes in power adopt unpopular policies, it is highly unlikely that the rulers of this part of the world will have the same room for manoeuvre compared to when they operated in simpler times. The policy space in which they work has been considerably narrowed.

There is also an increase in confidence among the leaders of several countries in the Muslim world. Leading the way is Turkey, a country that had for decades attempted to become a part of the western world but is now governed by a party and an individual who are determined to follow an independent line. According to Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist writing for The New York Times, “there is a longstanding debate over whether Turkey has tilted east after decades of embracing the West as a Nato member and almost reflexively allied with the United States. It still nominally embraces the goal of joining the European Union, carrying out reforms mandated by the entry process that have made Turkey a far more moderate place. But sensing a decline of American power in the region, Turkish officials have become sharply more assertive in the Middle East, priding themselves on keeping open channels to virtually every party”.

Even Afghanistan, beholden to the United States for keeping an unpopular regime in power and pouring billions of dollars into the country for what is called nation-building, has become assertive. Hamid Karzai, the country’s president, has warned Nato that he will not tolerate any more air attacks on civilian targets, even if they are suspected of harbouring the enemy. Pakistan is passing through a similar reassessment of its relations with Washington, especially after the May 2 attack on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. There are many in Pakistan — perhaps a large majority — who believe that the rise of Islamic extremism has to be checked and that the people operating outside the purview of the law have to be brought under control. Terrorism cannot be tolerated as a way of forcing onto the rest the worldview of a small segment of the population who wish to follow a different way of life and have a different approach to the world outside. That said, there is a seeming consensus emerging in the country that the war against terrorism will have to be fought on Pakistan’s terms and not on terms dictated from the outside.

The narrowing of the space within which policymakers can operate in the Muslim world will have enormous consequences for the countries in the region. One result will be the widening of the gap between them and the West, unless the latter makes some fundamental adjustments of its own.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • S. Asghar
    Jun 5, 2011 - 11:39PM

    The high handedness of US Govt. is directly propotional to the rise of extremism and radicalization in Islamic world.

    Truly needs change of policy.Recommend

  • Malik
    Jun 6, 2011 - 12:20AM

    Among the non-Arab parts of the Muslim world, the countries where Americans are fast losing influence are Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was lost decades ago in Iran.

    Who cares? Yawn. Move on.Recommend

  • Pankaj
    Jun 6, 2011 - 9:34AM

    Dear sir

    The Islamic world is FAR too behind the west .that is why the west does not care about the sentiments of OIC countries

    The Islamic countries are angry with the west because of the Palestinian issue which then led to Osama and Al qaeda and War on terror and Invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan

    But the west sees it differently They believe that How could the OIC countries even THINK about a war with the west given their economic and technological weaknesses

    Because It is all about money AND technological capabilities

    Even if all the 57 Islamic countries unite they cannot take on the West
    Simply because the GDP of ALL 57 Islamic countries would still be LESS than that of GERMANY

    Similarly the Technological capabilities of ALL Islamic countries put together are LESS than that of ISRAELRecommend

  • zohaib arsalan
    Jun 6, 2011 - 11:22AM

    The americans have surrendered before radical islam.Their media is scared of getting killed by islamic fanatics.pressure groups like CAIR blackmail anyone who dares criticise islamic extremism.The americans have got to summon the courage to take on the islamic extremists hiding amongst them.I’ve lived in america for over 20 years and have unfortunately seen the spread of islamic fanaticism.Mosques and madrassas funded by saudia arabia and iran have grown at an alarming rate & i see more and more women in burkas and abayas as they are forced by the men in their families to walk around in black tents.

    I’ve talked to many of these women and they tell angrily that if they don’t wear these suffocating garments they will be scolded and abused by their fathers,brothers or husbands.This coercion of women in the name of religion has to stop.Recommend

  • NA
    Jun 6, 2011 - 12:41PM

    Your way of thinking same like Westerns is the major obstacle reducing the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim world. Non-Muslims still cannot come out of the fear that if Muslims unite, they will wage a war upon non-Muslims so keep on interfering and oppressing Muslim states. It is a know facts that most of the rulers in Muslim countries are basically puppets of US or other western nations. But now the things are start changing, though the pace of change is quite slow but it would definitely be good for Muslims and alarming to US specially.Recommend

    Jun 6, 2011 - 2:09PM

    Sir I appreciate your article.But as far I think policy should be changed from muslim world,as we are on the depressing side.Recommend

  • Bambayya
    Jun 6, 2011 - 2:16PM

    Islamix Banking is the solution ….
    All muslims should do business only with muslims … and get there proper share …from the profits ….
    I really wonder … why Saudi has 3 trillion dollars invested in America ….Recommend

  • ambreen siddiqui
    Jun 6, 2011 - 2:35PM


    “All muslims should do business only with muslims ”

    woah!!! didn’t know cavemen like you still existed.pleas return to the madrassa you came from & let the rest of the people live in peace without extolling the virtues of religious aparthied.what muslims need is to give up their mistaken sense of religious superiority and stop considering ex-muslims,athiests & non-muslims as inferior beings.Recommend

  • Chilli
    Jun 6, 2011 - 2:36PM

    America dont care about Muslims in general as all leaders are well planted safeguarding US interest. These leaders give importance to US agenda and will time and again face public anger. The next line of leadership is also US selected so sleep tight, nothing with change.Recommend

  • ashwin
    Jun 6, 2011 - 3:30PM

    Why do you need the Muslim to justify Pakistan’s foreign policy decision.Muslim world or Muslim world Pakistan is a country of Pakistanis where Muslims are a majority, is being Muslim country only identifiable quality of Pakistan, that is really sad. Recommend

  • Jun 6, 2011 - 4:07PM

    @Bambayya –

    Chill dude, you will be even more thrilled to know that the Saudis have investment a huge part of their OIL money into funding Madarssas & other so called charitable organisations in Pakistan!Recommend

  • jamil
    Jun 6, 2011 - 6:24PM

    anti muslim policies of american govt has caused anger and hatred for americans in muslim world as result of which americans can not travel freely in any muslim countryRecommend

  • ani
    Jun 7, 2011 - 2:54AM

    The widening gap between Non Muslims and Muslims (why just America):

    No longer is the non – muslim world concerned with how muslims view it. No longer.

    Our views of tolerance, introspection, plurality, reason, respect for all beings and confronting evil are time tested. Recommend

  • mahmood
    Jun 7, 2011 - 7:25PM

    Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan have similarities — they are Muslim countries who’s leaders lambast America publicly while pandering to them privately. When push comes to shove all 3 countries have done exactly what America has asked them — often grudgingly and usually only after boasting to their people that they are not going to do America’s bidding — but in the end to do.Recommend

  • Bitter Pill
    Jun 7, 2011 - 11:17PM

    There is a widing gap between muslim majority nations & the rest of Humanity…not just America or the west!!!Recommend

  • wasim younis
    Jun 8, 2011 - 11:32AM

    In essence terrorism is more of a problem for Pakistan than for US, Europe or India. Pakistan bleeds a lot more! Pakistan should fight it for its own survival and freedom. Forget about US, drone attacks, violation of territorial integrity in Abbottabad. A lot more is at stake here! When Pakistan rids itself of terror these things will stop automatically.Recommend

  • mahmood
    Jun 8, 2011 - 11:03PM

    @Pankaj The Islamic countries are angry with the west because of the Palestinian issue which then led to Osama and Al qaeda and War on terror and Invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan

    More Muslim myth – in fact 911 had nothing to do with the Palestinians – OBL attacked the USA because the USA had placed a military base in Saudi Arabia at the behest of the govt of Saudi Arabia. which wanted to deter another potential attack from Iraq. Apparently he could not stand the thought of infidels corrupting what he thought was holy territory. Recommend

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