Why Realpolitik Matters To the Muslim World

Over the weekend there were more killings in the occupied territories of Palestine, as Israeli settlers went on the rampage, shooting at Arab civilians indiscriminately. Among those killed was a fourteen-year old girl who happened to be standing in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

In Iraq, the people find themselves trapped in a country that has been cut into pieces, with no-fly zones in the north and the south. Ordinary civilians no longer enjoy the right to travel freely in their own country, for their own airspace is no longer theirs.

In Iran, a similar fate awaits the nation as a whole. Despite the spectacular achievements brought about by the reformist movement led by Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami and his followers, the country has been put into the so-called ‘‘Axis of Evil’’ and branded a threat to world peace.

If any other country in the world had to suffer a similar fate, one would expect to hear an overwhelming chorus of dissent and disapproval. Imagine, if you will, the reaction if Japan was suddenly split into three parts, with no-fly zones in the north and south. Or if India was suddenly described as part of an ‘‘axis of evil’’ simply because it possessed nuclear technology and weapons of mass destruction. Or if America invaded a neighboring country and began setting up illegal settlements there.

But when such things happen to the Muslim countries of the world today, such aberrations are regarded as normal and taken for granted. Instead of an honest and open critique of the contradictions and injustices in the present world order, we have been fed a staple diet of platitudes and apologia instead. Peace, we are told, can never be achieved in the Arab countries because they are inherently unstable, undemocratic, dysfunctional states anyway. All sorts of excuses can be (and are) found to explain away the political impasse that we see in the Middle East today. Ranging from theories of auto-genocide, structural collapse, and intellectual dependency to traditional forms of ‘‘native’’ corruption and misrule, the nations of the Middle-East have been pathologized and recast as the basket-case of the world. The bottom line is that they are unable to govern themselves.

This sort of casual racism has taken root and become sedimented in the world we live in today. So deeply-rooted have these prejudices become that many of us don’t even bother to question the logic behind them. The more charitable and open-minded among us might admit that such a skewered picture of Arab-Muslim politics is a faulty caricature at best or an instrumental fiction at worst, but few voices of protest have been heard over the years.

Two major factors inhibit Muslim states from getting their point across, and both of them relate to the dominant culture of realpolitik which governs the world today.

For a start, nobody takes the Muslim world seriously anymore—least of all the Muslims themselves—for the simple reason that no two Muslim states can agree on the simplest of things. Witness how the governments of the Arab world continue to undermine each others’  efforts at development and progress. It is shameful to see how some Arab governments can stand by while another Arab country is cut into pieces and dissected into blocks the way Iraq has been. They sit by without uttering a word of protest for the simple reason that it suits their strategic interests to do so: a weakened Iraq would mean more leverage for other Arab countries hoping to gain an advantage in the costly battle for hegemony and dominance in the region. The same was the case when Libya was bombed to smithereens in the 1980s, and the Arab states sat on their seats while looking the other way. Another case in point is the demonization of Iran today. Few Arab leaders speak up in defense of Iran for the simple reason that they would be risking their own first-class tickets to the White House in the near future. In any case, there is also the age-old Arab prejudice against the Persians to fall back on, and the Iranians have never been welcomed in the capitals of the Arab world. Such disunity points to the existence of very real cleavages within the Muslim world and makes a mockery of the often-lauded claims to universal brotherhood among Muslims. What kind of ummah sits by while others are being slaughtered, dispossessed, marginalized, and oppressed?

Thanks to such short-term thinking and selfish interests, the Muslim world remains disunited and at odds with itself. This means that there is no singular, united voice that comes from the global community of one billion souls, and it means that all of us count for nothing as far as realpolitik considerations are concerned. A community of one billion carries less clout than a rotary club meeting if that community can’t even get its act together.

This leads us to the second factor of realpolitik today. If the rest of the non-Muslim world couldn’t care less about the Muslim world, it is because we do not count in the scheme of things. Why on earth should a non-Muslim country like China, Japan, Thailand, Brazil or Argentina speak up for Muslim rights when Muslims are not prepared to do it themselves? And why should any non-Muslim country in the world today stand up on the side of oppressed Muslim states and nations (and by doing do incur the wrath of the almighty United States) if the Muslim world cannot stand as a united bloc on its own?

The fact is that realpolitik predominates international relations, and countries—be they Muslim or non-Muslim—will act according to their own interests. No single country will risk upsetting the major powers of the Western world as long as there is no countervailing power to even up the score. In the present state of affairs where one superpower predominates and all others have been scared into silence and submission, standing up to Washington would be political suicide, plain and simple.

So for Muslim nations to gain the support and respect of non-Muslim states and peoples, we will have to sort out our own priorities first. Muslim governments and political leaders must abandon the Machiavellian logic of supporting powerful states in order to undermine their own Muslim neighbours. Economic co-operation has to be intensified, so that the Muslim world can at least present itself as a united market with some economic power. We need to reach out and communicate our concerns before a wider international audience that is plural, multi-cultural, and different. But most of all, we have to behave and think as a community and recognize that the interests of other Muslims happen to be ours as well. We cannot expect non-Muslims to care about the plight of Muslims elsewhere as long as we don’t do the same ourselves. Until then, all talk of a global Muslim ummah should be kept to history books and fairy tales, as it obviously doesn’t exist in the here-and-now.