What Nawaz should tell Obama

Published: October 17, 2015
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be packing his bags for Washington when this article appears in print. As he approaches the American capital, he should be prepared to answer some of the questions he is likely to be asked. He should also be prepared to ask some of his own. Even if not questioned directly, he should be ready to provide his assessment of where the western part of the Muslim world is going in terms of political and social development.

I define the Muslim world’s western part as the landmass that begins in Morocco in the west and ends with Bangladesh in the east. This is where the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslim people live. A large number of countries in this area are in turmoil. There is military conflict in several of them. The four-year-old Syrian war has been one of the bloodiest in recent history. An estimated 300,000 people have already been killed and tens of thousands of more will die. Half of the country’s population of 18 million have left their homes and are seeking refuge in the neighbouring states. Close to a million have either already entered Europe or are headed that way. If most of these get accommodated, they will change the demographic profile of the continent.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has jumped into the fray and has significantly increased his country’s military presence in Syria. The Russian air force is carrying out an intense bombing campaign in the areas that are now under the control of anti-Assad forces. Moscow’s official position is that it is hitting the Islamic State (IS) but the real target seems to be the forces the Americans were helping so that they could overthrow the Assad regime in Damascus. There is some fear that the stage is being set for another serous confrontation between Russia and America. Moscow’s sudden involvement is testing what some analysts are calling the “Obama Doctrine of Restraint”.

And then there are the worrying developments in Afghanistan which led the United States to decide that it will not abide by the timetable laid down by Barack Obama according to which all American forces will pull out by the end of 2016, a few weeks before he vacates the White House. Under pressure from the Afghan government, Washington has decided not to leave the country altogether. Whether this decision will impress the dissidents in Afghanistan, only time will tell.

A front page article in The Washington Post by Sudarasan Raghavan, a highly respected journalist of Indian origin, who knows the Muslim world well, paints a horrifying picture of the pain that is being inflicted by the extremists in Afghanistan. His story appeared on October 15, the day the Pentagon took the decision to prolong America’s stay. The extremists who identify with the IS have captured some territory around Jalalabad, not far from the border with Pakistan. That this would happen was predicted by President Ashraf Ghani in his long conversation with me in early May. “Pakistan military actions in their northern areas have pushed a large number of people to our side of the border,” he told me. “All the world’s filth has collected on our side in a 60-mile stretch that runs along our common border. This includes the IS. These people have brought with them their families hoping for a long stay.”

With this as the background, a fair amount of time will be spent in the Nawaz-Obama meeting in the White House, discussing developments in the Muslim world. The Pakistani prime minister should be prepared to make three points in his conversation. One, the rise of religious extremism should not be treated as an expression of deeply held beliefs of Muslims across the globe. Unfortunately, this is being done by a number of candidates vying for the Republican ticket for the presidential election in 2016. One of them, a former brain surgeon, has proclaimed that Muslims are not welcome in the United States. Their values cannot be reconciled with those of America. This kind of open talk is leading to Islamophobia in the United States as well as in Europe.

Two, Pakistan has a role to play in steadying the Muslim world. Along with Turkey, it is one of the two countries in the western part that is moving towards a viable and fully representative political order. Like the rest of the Muslim world, it too has a very young population which has aspirations that can only be satisfied by inclusive political and economic orders. Pakistan, in other words, could become a good example of a country that has evolved in the right direction. For it to keep moving in this desired direction, it needs support from the West.

Three, the use of force against extremism will not help. It has to be combined with social and economic progress that provides hope to the restless young populations in Muslim countries. The youth, with proper education and training, can become an asset; neglected, they will head for exit from the systems in which they live. It was their choice of exit as a strategy that led to the Arab Spring of 2011. It only succeeded in Tunisia; in other countries, the established order reasserted itself, sometimes with America’s help. America and the rest of the West need to reconsider their approach to the Muslim world.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (12)

  • Ammar
    Oct 18, 2015 - 12:24AM


    “Pakistan has a role to play in
    steadying the Muslim world.”


    I literally fell of the chair when I read this sentence. We need to steady Pakistan first. We don’t have to make tall claims out of empty pride and false bravado. Recommend

  • ajeet
    Oct 18, 2015 - 4:35AM

    The article conveniently forgets to mention the fact that its the educated and well off Muslims who are leading this barbarity.Recommend

  • vinsin
    Oct 18, 2015 - 6:34AM

    So PM should speak of Muslim ummah which should not include Malaysia and Indonesia and discuss about US upcoming elections, oppose TNT, USA should welcome Muslims but Muslim world should be exempted from doing the same to their minorities, west should give more jizya, education of Muslims lead to revolution and infighting.Recommend

  • Srinath
    Oct 18, 2015 - 6:59AM

    Excellent piece, particularly the last para. The writer’s advice is relevant for the leadership in the West and the Islamic world alike. This cannot be achieved without the State control over masjids and madrassas.Recommend

  • komal s
    Oct 18, 2015 - 7:30AM

    In other words your government should not focus on the alleged Indian terror factory and Kashmir issue. Your officials think otherwise. Recommend

    Oct 18, 2015 - 10:45AM


  • abhi
    Oct 18, 2015 - 12:17PM

    very outdated view. The countries in so called western part of muslim world are totally different in social and cultural background and by no means Pakistan can answer on behalf of these countries. Pakistan should focus on what it wants and what it can do.Recommend

  • observer
    Oct 18, 2015 - 2:37PM

    I define the Muslim world’s western part as the landmass that begins in Morocco in the west and ends with Bangladesh in the east.

    If Nawaz tells Obama that Bangladesh is in the ‘West’, Obama would probably go ROFL.Recommend

  • GKA
    Oct 18, 2015 - 5:40PM

    Muslim world starts from Morocco and ends with Bangladesh ? The most populous Muslim country is Indonesia. Is there an Arab (Saudi ?) definition to being a Muslim country that Pakistan follows ?

    And Nawaz should discuss with Obama. Why ? Russia is building a gas pipeline for you. why not discuss with them ? Why not Muslim world solve its own problems and help the rest of the world to solve thiers, rather than standing and demanding that the rest of the world solve their own problems. When will Muslim world take responsibility of themselves ?Recommend

  • Jag Nathan
    Oct 18, 2015 - 6:44PM

    “Pakistan has a role to play in steadying the Muslim world.”

    Pakistanis should first try and steady themselves before they embark on these visions of grandeur. The most likely thing that will happen in DC would be Mr. Obama handing over to Mr. Sheriff and his delegation a list of demands with an subtle ultimatum “Or Else”. Nations living of IMF Loans and largesse and have nothing of any great value that can be called exportable have little say in world affairs. Indians learned it the hard way and Pakistanis will be learning it the hard way. Recommend

  • Mrs HighBall
    Oct 18, 2015 - 7:34PM

    The best thing Nawaz should do at this juncture with its strange turn of events is NOT go out of his way to meet Obama. Find an excuse to beat feet.Recommend

  • Skywalker
    Oct 18, 2015 - 8:11PM

    So true.

    Pakistan is a self-proclaimed leader of Muslim world. Does OIC really gives a squat about Pakistan?
    OIC is busy licking boots of GCC nations. Further rest of the non-Muslim world looks at Pakistan with suspicion. If the so-called leader has a credibility issue, what will be the opinion of rest of the Ummah/OIC nations in the eyes of nation who weld money and power?

    Anyway, good luck Mr PM. Hope all goes well. Peace!Recommend

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