Casualties of a civilizational war

Ever since Samuel Huntington came out with his seminal “Clash of Civilizations" essay, Western liberal intellectuals have strenuously sought to disprove the theory that Islamic and non-Islamic societies were upon a collision course.

Luckily for them and, indeed for all humankind, a phenomenon which for a while bore all the troubling hallmarks of a conflict of civilizations has metamorphosed into an intra-civilizational matter. It is Muslims in conflict with Muslims, with Asians facing problems in some of the world’s most populous and unstable Islamic nations – Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, and Afghanistan. Unluckily, it is a conflict all the same.

Ranged against each other on one side in this war of wills and ideas is a confrontational and uncompromising Islamist minority. On the other stands a largely peaceful if emotionally torn majority whose numbers include Muslims with such diverse cultural backgrounds as fashion-conscious Lebanese Sunnis and impoverished Pakistani Baluchis, cosmopolitan young Algerians and moderate middle-class Maldivians.

Just a little over six years ago, it seemed that al-Qaeda, the militant Islamist organisation led by Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian physician, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had a score to settle with the United States alone. For a brief moment after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the presence of Christian and Jewish American soldiers in Saudi Arabia and the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel, Washington's key regional ally, did appear needlessly provocative.

Since then, the Americans and the Israelis have vacated respectively the Saudi Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, only to see al-Qaeda and its allied organisations shift the goal-posts and, more ominously, lengthen the list of targets.

Frustrated in their attempts to launch more 9/11-style attacks on the far enemy, these groups have literally trained their guns on the near one, namely fellow Muslims who do not dress, behave and worship in the prescribed way or hold political views identical to theirs.

This near enemy now notably includes Somali moderates, secular Palestinians and Bangladeshis, anti-Taliban Afghans, Iraqi Shias and Sunni members of the country's Awakening Councils, and, in a cruel irony of fate, even employees of Pakistan's once jihad-friendly Inter-Services Intelligence, not to mention the larger secular Pakistani society.

For societies far removed from the war theatre, the nuances of this violent phenomenon are probably too subtle to appreciate. Even those more knowledgeable in such matters would doubtless have preferred a straight fight between Islam and Bush's America, if nothing else for the sake of clarity.

But as scholars of Islam have long known, all talk of a monolithic Muslim community, or ummah, embodied in such acronyms as Organisation of the Islamic Conference(OIC), is just that.

Behind the rhetoric of Muslim political slogans, there always have existed widely divergent national interests, political philosophies, cultural norms and economic policies, to say nothing about sectarian loyalties.

As things stand, what unites unapologetically liberal Muslims today is not Islam but rather the clear and present danger posed by the militant version of it.

On face value, the bedraggled soldiers of the UN- and Ethiopian-backed transitional Somali government's army, the besieged Gaza-based loyalists of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, and the grief-stricken supporters of the slain Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto have little in common.

But at a deeper, civilizational level, they are all members of a single, so to say "moderate Muslim protection force" that is locked in deadly combat with an enemy bent on setting up professedly pure Islamic governments, and, at its most ambitious level, a unified global Islamic caliphate.

Caught between groups as diverse as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas on one side and governments allied with the US on the other side, large sections of Muslim populations have refused to be drawn into this bloody conflict. In surveys conducted by US think-tanks, they continue to show their admiration for the likes of Bin Laden and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.

Yet they are also conscious that, if given a chance to vote with their feet, they could do a lot worse than choose Singapore over Samarra and Canberra over Kandahar. Call it moral confusion or survival instinct, this attitude merely underscores the complexity of the conflict over the soul of Islam.

At the governing elites' level, the story naturally is different. Practically all the moderate Muslim frontline states from Algeria and Iraq to Pakistan and Indonesia are happily receiving US financial aid and military training and assistance. Thus far, most of them have managed this cooperation with the Bush administration without appearing to be Washington's puppets.

Absence of a militant Islamist backlash cannot be taken for granted indefinitely, however, as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s experience shows.

With anti-US sentiment still very strong across the Arab and Islamic worlds, moderate Muslim leaders without a powerful security apparatus risk becoming casualties of what US defence officials are referring to as “a long war”.

This war, according to its chroniclers, actually began with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which inspired the Islamic Mujahidin resistance that in turn acted as a catalyst for an open-ended Afghan Arab jihad in a process calibrated by Pakistan's CIA-backed intelligence agencies.

Bin Laden, then a wealthy but little known Saudi prince, entered the war ostensibly to kill the Godless Red Army soldiers and their communist Afghan allies. That decision, it now seems, will be remembered as a landmark event in the ongoing bloody clash within the

Islamic civilisation.

Arnab Sengupta is a Gulf-based journalist.