Lines in the sand: Western state building in the muslim world

Modern day maps of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia reflect a pattern and a principle ingrained in the foreign policies of major European, and now American, powers -- the existence of numerous sovereign Muslim countries.

While wars and invasions against Muslim states by outside powers have taken place in the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, none of such major military and political moves in the last several decades sought to redraw boundaries or radically change the modern map of the Islamic world.

Today's Muslim states -- countries where Islam is a majority religion adhered to by the overwhelming percentage of the population -- emerged on the ruins of the last major Muslim power -- Ottoman Turkey, and as a result of the dissolution of British India. Following the end of WWI, and later on, in 1947, young nation-states emerged in place of the centuries-old established order and principles. For many decades, Western European powers, the United States and the Soviet Union all promoted the emergence of these states onto the world arena, and supported them based on their own political, military or economic interests. Assistance to these states as separate political units drove the diverse foreign policies of the major powers after both world wars, during the Cold War, and in the current unipolar environment.

Muslim States: Past and Present

Taking a look at the modern map of the Islamic world reveals a rather strange picture. In North Africa, and the Middle East, actual boundaries of states hardly correspond to the historical, cultural and ethnic make-ups of these regions. The prevalence of straight lines on the map that cut the Saharan or Arabian Deserts into independent states is just that -- lines in the sand. They divide tribes, clans, families and their corresponding histories and aspirations in an arbitrary manner.

In some cases, all that is required to cross from one North African or Arabian state to the next is to walk over a sand dune. In a region where natural boundaries such as mountains, rivers, valleys or seas are largely absent, the new "borders" came to represent independent Libya, Egypt, Algeria or Jordan. People living on the border areas of these states are hardly aware of the fact that they live across another country. Likewise, in South Asia, Pakistan and India are divided by hastily-designed borders that have been the source of conflict between these two states for the last five decades.

The powers that divided the Islamic world into modern states sought to preserve their own influence. British, French and Italian colonial holdings had to be clearly defined in the newly acquired territories of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. The easiest way to do this was to create clearly defined boundaries on the world map. The results are straight lines running across the deserts of Arabia and the Sahara. These lines, however, did not -- and still do not -- reflect the realities on the ground, where people were used to moving around with ease, unobstructed by any border checkpoints and patrols.

The Muslim concept of umma, or one's belonging to the worldwide Islamic community, is one of the chief principles of Islam. According to the Quran, every practicing Muslim's loyalty should be to his religion first, and to any other state or political entity second. Furthermore, a true believer of Islam should not follow the rules and customs of other governments, but instead must obey Islamic principles, as millions of fellow Muslims do every day.

Thus, the actual reading of certain Islamic teachings would indicate that Muslims living across the globe belong to the worldwide Islamic "nation," and not to any particular state on the map. Today's headlines are full of statements by some Muslim groups or individuals all over the world who refuse to obey the secular laws of various countries, preferring instead to establish Islamic rule in those very states. Many countries today grapple with this principle, and the state responses to such Islamic claims vary considerably.

Until the end of WWI, most Islamic nations were part of great Muslim empires. Following the demise of the Mughal and Persian empires, the last such empire, Ottoman Turkey, was comprised of what are now nearly twelve independent states of the Middle East and North Africa. It was once a regional hegemon and a superpower, threatening both Europe and Russia. The Ottoman Empire held sway over Islam by controlling two of the religion's holiest cities -- Mecca and Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia.

While internally weak, and under constant attacks from within and without starting with the dawn of the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire represented the strength and hope to millions of Muslims around the world. As WWI drew to a close and the dissolution of this once-great power was imminent, a powerful movement was born in British India, home to the majority of the world's Muslims at that time. The movement, called the Khilafat -- after the Islamic notion that a Muslim state unifying all the world's Muslims should exist, governed by a religious-political head, the khalif, or caliph -- sought to preserve Turkey's role as the leader of the Islamic world.

While many Muslims living under the decaying Ottoman rule did not support such a movement, and fought against it alongside European powers, the concept itself was a powerful force to millions of Muslims in British India. It eventually died once Turkey became a republic and embarked on the road to modernization in the early 1920s. Nonetheless, Western foreign policies since that time have been directed at preserving the political disunity of the Muslim world, fostering various political developments with the eventual aim at avoiding the resurgence of a powerful Islamic state that would unify hundreds of millions of Muslims into one political, economic and military entity.

That process was greatly assisted by the start of the Cold War and the American-Soviet rivalry. As the newly created Islamic states ended their domination by the British, French and Italian colonial powers in the 1950s, they actively sought to protect their newly acquired independence from the repeat of colonial encroachment. Both the West and the Soviet Union were happy to oblige their new clients, supporting each one independently from the other. Pan-Arabic nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s was a perfect example of such a policy, as the U.S.S.R. supported Egypt's nationalism, while the West invested resources to support the states of the Arabian Peninsula.  

Elsewhere, in North Africa, states like Morocco and Algeria were seen as a counterweight to strong claims by Egypt for the leadership of the Arab world. Supporting each state separately, giving it incentives to act independently of others in the region, made it possible for the Western and Soviet world to deal with each Muslim state on its own. Pan-Arab national aims replaced religious Islam as a rallying cry for unity -- a cry that was followed by various indigenous attempts to modernize the Muslim world and bring it closer to Western economic and political standards.

While the Soviet Union actively supported secular nationalistic Egypt, Syria, and Libya, the United States supported secular Iran and Pakistan, as well as Israel and monarchic Arabian kingdoms. Conflicting political and economic programs by the Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian states replaced relative Muslim unity and cohesion that might have existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Moreover, these countries were drawn into economic interdependence with the West through the exploration and trade in oil, the chief source of fuel for the rapidly growing Western and Asian economies.

Modern Challenges to the West

The Iranian revolution of 1979 delivered the first shock to the established principles of splitting the Muslim world into separate political entities. While the coming to power of a theocratic government was not by itself shocking -- most oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula were monarchic theocracies supported by the Western world -- the message and policies of the new Iranian government were alarming. The new rulers of Tehran sought to export their religious revolution to other Muslim countries and to overthrow the regimes that were either leaning towards, or were supported by, the secular, non-religious United States, Soviet Union and Western Europ.

Their motives met with relative success with the Iranian-style revolution in Sudan in the early 1980s, and the creation of the Lebanese Hizbollah movement. In effect, the Iranian theocratic government assumed the leadership of the movement to unify the Islamic world, hoping to rid it of any non-Islamic influence, or to at least unify Shi'a Muslims living in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. This has been Iran's consistent policy and while it has varied its statements and policies since 1979, the overall message is the same. What makes Iran more powerful in this scenario is the fact that it is one of the world's largest oil producers, and its aims are directed at the main oil-producing region of the world that is of immense strategic and economic importance to practically every industrialized country.

The second challenge to the non-Islamic governments of the West was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This time, the United States and its worldwide coalition responded with a powerful military operation against the Iraqi regime that became known as the Gulf War. Iraq's aims at that time were two-fold -- to achieve military hegemony in the Persian Gulf and to conquer a major oil-producing state in the region. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader, espoused claims to the leadership of the Arab world, acting as the protector of Arab Sunni countries against a recalcitrant Iranian Shi'a regime.

At that time, many Muslim states supported Iraq as the bulwark against Iran. Once Iraq invaded Kuwait, the regional powers and the West saw the possible emergence of Iraq as a major power in control of the world's oil supplies. Prior to the U.S.-led military action, the Iraqi regime stood within striking distance of Saudi Arabia and its massive oil fields, a territory that would not have been able to adequately protect itself without outside assistance. A military attack on Iraqi forces became a necessary option for Western interests to prevent the emergence of a powerful Muslim state with the capacity to act as a possible unifying force in the Muslim world due to its growing military and economic strength.

The third challenge came in the face of al-Qaeda, a powerful worldwide militant organization that calls for the unity of the umma against the United States and the West; the overthrow of secular, military, political or monarchic regimes associated with the West; and the establishment of an Islamic khilafat, or caliphate. Al-Qaeda has been linked to various Muslim militant groups operating all around the world with similar goals.

Recently, it has been suspected of cooperating with the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militant organization, as well as other non-Arab groups and movements. This particular cooperation is significant because it marks the first known operational linkage across religious and ethnic lines -- al-Qaeda is an ultra-conservative movement adhering to the Sunni branch of Islam, while Hizbollah and Iran follow Shi'a Islamic teachings. This worldwide cooperation of this network marks a serious development that is already unsettling the entire Muslim world. While al-Qaeda has been temporarily crippled by the U.S.-led assault after the September 11 terrorist attacks, there is no indication that it is letting up its efforts in the Middle East, Southeast Asia or even Europe -- in fact, its popularity is growing amongst the world's Muslims.

The Western response to Iranian, Iraqi and al-Qaeda threats include the support and cooperation with several key Muslim states, such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. All of them receive varying degrees of military, logistical, economic and political support. Following the defeat of the Iraqi regime in 2003, the United States made public its desire to contain Iran and to destroy al-Qaeda. The harder that both al-Qaeda and Iran try to create a Muslim movement capable of challenging the outside world, the harder the U.S. and its partners push back in preserving and supporting regimes as different from each other as the military dictatorship in Pakistan, the Saudi monarchy or the quasi-military government of Egypt.

From a geopolitical standpoint, it is easier to deal with a relatively small state than with a large and powerful country. When Egypt sought to create the United Arab Republic in the 1960s by attempting to unify Egypt, Syria, Yemen and potentially other states in the Middle East, the United States supported Israel's successful military moves and countermoves that eventually ended the Egyptian initiative. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 did not seek to radically change these countries -- rather, it seeks to install a friendly government within the existing borders.

The current administration's drive to spread democracy in the Middle East does not envision the melting away of boundaries and decades-long political sovereignty -- rather, Washington seeks to preserve the existing states as they are by hopefully bringing democratically-oriented governments to power. This policy is driven by a premise that democratic states would not pose a danger to each other, would respect each other's sovereignty within the existing borders and would not easily launch war on their neighbors for a religious, political or ethnic purpose. The collection of pacific, but independent Muslim states would allow for unobstructed access to the world's oil resources and would preclude the emergence of a regional hegemon capable of upsetting the existing balance of power.

That is precisely what Iran and al-Qaeda want to avoid. The melting away of artificial Middle Eastern and North African boundaries that were imposed by now defunct governments of Western Europe would create a massive state with the majority Muslim population in the hundreds of millions and in control of the crucial oil and natural gas reserves. Such an outcome would effectively create another superpower on the world arena. There are indications that Muslim states are seeking to move closer to such a reality.

The creation of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (O.P.E.C.), a supranational organization comprised of major oil exporters from North Africa, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, was a major development in the Muslim world. It has already demonstrated its power by causing an oil crisis in the United States in the 1970s, and it could still be a powerful force affecting world governments that grow more dependent on oil imports. The Organization of Islamic Conference (O.I.C.) is another powerful organization that unifies Muslim states around the world.

The O.I.C. has a major influence in world affairs, since even Russia is seriously contemplating joining it in order to foster greater religious freedom for millions of its Muslim citizens. Other organizations exist that seek to speak with a unified Arabic, North African or Islamic voice. While at present these organizations are not powerful or unified enough to stop U.S. political and military developments, their clout is steadily increasing as the powers of the European Union and China -- both entities with a heavy reliance on oil -- grows on the world arena.


Given the historical progression that at one time saw powerful Islamic states play a major role in world developments, followed by their internal dissolution, later subjugation and colonization by outside powers, and the eventual emergence as many distinct entities with varying degrees of religious, political and military governance, today's Islamic world presents a fragmented picture within artificial political boundaries. If the world's current dependence on oil continues to grow -- as recent reports about China's oil consumption seem to indicate -- many Muslim states will assume greater clout in world affairs, making it harder to treat each of them separately as distinct "identities" vis-а-vis other states.

The latest developments in the "war on terrorism" point to unifying movements in the Islamic world, either with Iran's help or under the banner of al-Qaeda and its allies -- a more coordinated attack on Western principles and Western interests in the Muslim world that cut across the religious and ethnic divides. While U.S. efforts in Iraq have faltered since 2003, the January 30 Iraqi election following a relatively successful election in Afghanistan will prove to be one of the turning points in the development of the Islamic world, which will either accept and foster the Western model and emerge as a collection of distinct and friendly states, or will finally break under the pressure of Iran and al-Qaeda and begin to emerge as a unified religious, political and military entity, heralding a new chapter in world history.

Yevgeny Bendersky

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Author`s name Andrey Mikhailov