Column: An unsafe world

Written by Meghnad Desai | Updated: Jun 16 2014, 07:54am hrs
A stable Pakistan is in Indias best interest if it is to remain insulated from the turmoil in the Arab world

India has voted itself a stable government which will last the full term of five years. The Prime Minister has made a good beginning by inviting the Subcontinental neighbours to his swearing-in, making a bid for peaceful relations. Yet elsewhere, ever since May 16, the world has been getting more unstable. The financial markets are registering one of the lowest reading for the volatility index, Vix. But that may be, as we used to say, a lagging indicator or one which looks only at stock markets.

Events in Iraq confirm what has been shaping up for the last five years at least. There is a massive and prolonged civil war going on between the Shia and Sunni Muslims in the territory of the old Ottoman Empire. The Western powers, at the end of the First World War, drew arbitrary borders and demarcated Syria, Iraq, Jordan, etc. The centre of the Empire became Turkey which has tried to maintain its position as a secular Republic. Yet the reality is that we have Shia, Sunni and Kurds co-habiting uneasily within that vast territory.

For years, the dream of Arab countries was to reunite the various separate regions. After the Second World war and the establishment of Israel, their desire was refuelled by the determination to drown Israel in the sea. Pan-Arab unity did not, however, deliver military victory. After three defeats in 1948, 1967 and 1973, the dream of a United Arab Republic collapsed. Since secular socialist regimes had been at the forefront of that promise, both the ideologiessecularism and socialismlost hold on the peoples of the Middle East.

What we have had since is the rise of Muslim orthodoxy. The oil price rise of 1973 and 1979 enriched the Saudis and the Iranians and other Middle Eastern oil exporters. Saudis sponsored Wahabbism which was their own local sect. Iranians had their revolution which put the Ayatollahs in power and created a strong Shia state. During the 1980s, both the big Cold War powers got humbled in the region. The US backed Saddam Hussein in his ten-year-long war against Iran, but that proved to be a war with no victors. The Soviet Union went into Afghanistan and again withdrew after a humiliating defeat.

The stage was thus set for the rise of Islamism with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Few people who associate them with terrorism realise that the primary fight of these groups is against Muslim states. They want to purify Muslim states along orthodox lines before they engage with the infidel enemy. It was Osama bin-Ladens anger with the Saudis that triggered his war with the US. The US fought the

Al-Qaeda and at least got bin-Laden killed though the Al-Qaeda has survived. The Taliban has once again seen the US out of Afghanistan.

The real battle ground has now shifted to Syria and Iraq. Assad may have won temporarily but he does not control all his old territory. Syria is partitioned as between Assad, his West- supported liberal enemies and the Al-Qaeda. It is the Al-Qaeda who have now spilled over into Iraq and threaten to take it over. Iraq is the only country with a Shia majority among the Arabs and has been a sort of democracy for the last ten years. It faces annihilation at the hands of the Al-Qaeda. It remains to be seen if the USA will step in with armament assistance or if Iran will come to the rescue of its

Shia brethren.

But there is also the resurgent

Kurdistan movement. Kurds spread across Iraq, Syria and Turkey and have long dreamt of their own nation-state. The chaos which is emerging may give them the best chance of combining bits of Syria and Iraq as the first instalment of Kurdistan. Turkey is stable enough to resist any incursion into its territory. Jordan and Lebanon are already caught up in the turmoil as they have Syrian refugees among them. The conflict could spill over into Israel and then there would be a total war .

The airport attacks in Karachi tell us that the entire region from Pakistan up to the western edge of Turkey is now at risk of unravelling under the attack of Islamist forces. This entire region, with India included, was where, until a century ago, the Sunni Muslims looked towards Istanbul as the seat of the Khilafat, offering in their Friday prayers their allegiance to the Ottoman Emperor who was also the Khalifa. This region is being unscrambled into a new shape.

India cannot remain passive to what is happening but nor can it do anything actively. For India, it is the stability and the survival of Pakistan which is the most vital issue. India needs a stable Pakistan ruled by sane politicians, inimical though they may be, rather than the fanatical Taliban with whom there is no negotiation except by arms.

The author is a prominent economist and Labour peer