Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Militant Islam - can it be turned to advantage?

Examine what Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 2014, and it seems clear that he is shaping a new pragmatic approach to the political problems, emanating from the Middle East, that encompass the Western world.  His vision is bold, and it has validity, but whether he will be able to persuade world leaders to sign up to it is disputable.

Two main aspects of his concept strike a novel note. 

The first is how he is now defining “militant Islam”.  It is the self-styled Islamic State (IS) itself that has provided him with a political advantage that he has seized on.  By rendering itself obnoxious and a threat to both the Western world and neighbouring Arab states, IS now exemplifies militant Islam.  Led by the US, a formidable alliance at least in theory has declared its intention of destroying the organisation.

Using this opportunity, Netanyahu is seeking to extend the concept of militant Islam to include all jihadist and extremist Muslim organisations the world over, Sunni and Shia alike. He of course includes Hamas and Hezbollah – the one Sunni-based, the other Shia which have a special relevance to the Israel-Palestine situation, but he extends his concept further.  He encompasses Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, even India each battling one or other extremist Islamist grouping. There is, of course, ample chapter and verse to justify this view of the universal dangers posed by each and every jihadist group – statements by their leading figures declaring their ultimate ambition to impose their particular brand of Islam on the entire world.

Significantly, and not without sound reasoning, he includes Iran in his definition of the militant Islamic nexus.  He quotes the global mission of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, “set forth by its founding ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, in these words: ‘We will export our revolution to the entire world, until the cry "There is no God but Allah" echoes throughout the world…’
And now, with Iran standing on the brink of realising its aim of becoming a nuclear military power, Netanyahu virtually entreats the P5 + 1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), who are negotiating with Iran over control of its nuclear program, not to be “bamboozled” into an agreement that will remove the sanctions it still faces, and leave it with the capacity of thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium.  It is not unreasonable, given Iran’s record of promoting and exporting terrorism around the world, to consider what would follow if militant Islamists were armed with weapons of mass destruction, supplied by a nuclear-powered Iran.

In attempting to bring Western leaders round to this point of view, Netanyahu faces an uphill struggle.  There are powerful voices in the US, the UK, the EU and Russia, of course, which are prepared to take Iran’s new charm offensive at face value, and favour inviting it back into the comity of nations.  They accept its assurances regarding its peaceful nuclear intentions, and they see in Shia Iran a useful ally in the fight to destroy Sunni-based IS.  It would not be easy to persuade those who hold this view that IS and Iran are simply two sides of the same coin.

Netanyahu faces a problem also in attempting to equate militant Islamists fighting established governments in very different parts of the world.  He himself admits in his speech that they operate in a variety of countries, target different victims and even kill each other in their quest for supremacy. His argument is that their basic similarity of aim outweighs these superficial differences.  They all seek to create ever-expanding enclaves of militant Islam, he asserts, “where there is no freedom and no tolerance – where women are treated as chattel, Christians are decimated, and minorities are subjugated, sometimes given the stark choice: convert or die. For them, anyone can be an infidel, including fellow Muslims.”

He certainly has a point, but any attempt to mobilise world opinion against the concept of a universal militant Islam would be a difficult enterprise. He is not likely to garner widespread support.  But he would be satisfied if the world accepted that Iran was part and parcel of the militant Islamic nexus.  He summed up his argument in a telling phrase: “To defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war.”

That is one of the two strands of innovative thinking that Netanyahu offered the General Assembly. The other, although cleverly founded on the current determination on all sides to defeat IS, was to step onto very thin ice indeed – the concept of a working alliance between Israel and those Arab states opposed to militant Islamists in general, and IS and Iran in particular. The ice is thin because, however willing some Arab governments may be to enter into a recognised relationship with Israel, they would find difficulty in carrying popular opinion with them.

It is certainly the case that after decades of seeing Israel as their enemy, leading states in the Arab world are realising that they and Israel face many of the same dangers the most pressing being a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. It is, however, a long step from that to the idea of openly embracing your traditional antagonist, long held up to the Arab world as the epitome of evil intent.
To sugar the pill, Netanyahu effectively turns a cherished belief on its head. “Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. But these days I think it may work the other way around namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

He is, in effect, inviting the active involvement of a range of Arab countries into the peace process.  If successful, this would certainly counter the latest ploy of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, which is to by-pass peace negotiations altogether, seek UN approval of a sovereign Palestinian state, and isolate and delegitimize Israel in the UN courts of justice.

Not without reason Netanyahu asserts that today there is a new Middle East presenting new dangers, but also new opportunities.  Locked into his UN speech are a coherent set of ideas, firmly based on current political realities, with the potential to reinvigorate a long stultified situation.  It is dispiriting, but probably realistic, to conclude that in the event, the difficulties of doing so will probably prevail.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 September 2014:

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