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.