By Dr. Fatima Hussain
Daly Times : June 18, 2020
* Security and stability in the lands of Sufism's birth, have been disturbed by a variety of factors — internally, by the conflict of the people with authoritarian, autocratic regimes
The recent spate of terrorist attacks on Sufi shrines, in Pakistan, brings to mind the following question: Why is it that the lands of the origin and development of Sufism, became associated with violence and terror resulting in tendentious nomenclature for abominable activities (Islamic terrorism)?
To begin with, all countries in the land of Sufism’s birth, allowed themselves to be used as instruments of foreign policy of others, who worked with the twin objective of forwarding an imperialist agenda and discouraging the notion of a powerful power bloc in the developing parts of Asia. With the explicit purpose of vilifying, Islam as a religious tradition and Muslim as a socio-political subject became synonymous. Well before 9/11, terrorism in its modern form, did exist in the world-in Algeria, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India (in the form of Khalistan, Naxalite and Kashmir struggle), Chechnya and other parts of Russia. However, it became worth dealing with, only when it started hurting the privileged few of the world who are more equal than equal. (The earliest references to the Reign of Terror can be traced to the period of the French Revolution when passionate attempts were made to enforce the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity).
Security and stability in the lands of Sufism’s birth, have been disturbed by a variety of factors – internally, by the conflict of the people with authoritarian, autocratic regimes that were supported by the neo-imperialists for strategic and commercial reasons. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been a major source of discontent due to the sense of injustice it has generated among many. The U.N. has proved to be totally ineffective in the sphere of peace and security since international law does not have an international enforcing agency internally.
From the late 18th century onwards, several European powers had shown keen interest in West Asia, as part of their imperialist agenda. The British, the French, the Dutch and the Russians, all started carving out colonies, on the pretext of establishing protectorates for religious minorities in the tottering Ottoman Empire. Coupled with it, was the missionary zeal to enforce ‘their’ idea of modernization and ‘civilized’ on others, to bring about political and social change.
As Britain started taking a lead in the race for
colonies (due to its industrial superiority and control over Indian
resources), it started elbowing out the French, Dutch, etc. starting
with Oman. Britain prohibited free movement of ships in West Asia in the
name of preventing piracy, slave trade and smuggling of weapons, thus
destroying the economy of the region along with ports, cities, etc. It
also restricted the movement of tribes, therefore we have the Al Zaids
in the UAE, Al Thanis in Qatar, Al Saud in Saudi Arabia, all part of the
The British, as a final blow to the Ottoman Empire, promised complete liberation to the Arabs (Sharif-McMohan Agreement), but made contradictory plans with the French over sharing the spoils of the fragmentation (Sykes- Picot Agreement) and with the Zionists (Balfour Declaration), resulting in the creation of Israel on Palestinian land. Thus, the Ottoman Empire was disintegrated and yet, the promised freedom was not given. The discovery of oil was a major turning point and even before the World War I, the focus of economy shifted from coal to oil. The strategic importance of oil was realized since it enhanced the naval power.
From the late 18th century onwards, several European powers had shown keen interest in West Asia, as part of their imperialist agenda. The British, the French, the Dutch and the Russians, all started carving out colonies, on the pretext of establishing protectorates for religious minorities in the tottering Ottoman Empire
Geopolitically and strategically, West Asia has been of crucial importance for the Western powers. The control over West Asia was important for British control of India and also, since it was close to the Soviet Union. The presence of oil resources which had fast started replacing steam power in industry and shipping, was a very important economic factor. West Asia was also of tremendous significance by virtue of its geo-strategic location, almost at the center of the world. It boasts of many nodal choke points, controlling world trade routes -the Strait of Hormuz (75% of world’s energy passes through it), Barivel Bander, Dardanelles, to name a few.
The importance of West Asia for all the industrial nations is evident from the fact that the West took serious offence when the Suez Canal was nationalized; when it was closed in 1956 (for about a year and a half) and in 1967 (for 7-8 years), rationing of oil resources had to be Introduced and Europe was brought to its knees. West Asia is a promising market for those trying to engage in exports, since it is a capital surplus region.
It is evident that a desire to control petro-energy resources has been a determining factor in the political economy of West Asia. At the time when oil was discovered, West Asia was a tribal dominated area. Oil was found in the hinterland, which was controlled by tribes where there was circulation of tribal leadership that exercised political and military power. The merchants lived in the coastal region and controlled the economy. With this kind of socio-political formation, it was imperative for the world powers to identify and consolidate the position of the tribal leader, in order to successfully pursue their oil interest and to be able to sign the deal. The simple tribes were not aware of the magnitude of oil wealth and had been supported by the merchants. However, with the discovery of oil, the entire political equation changed. The volume of royalty was a phenomenal sum for the tribal leadership, and they, no longer depended on the coastal magnates.
Without a system of taxation (which is linked to democracy) there was legitimacy to develop an authoritarian structure linked to oil. The state became very rich and there was state led development and welfare, in the name of sharing the wealth; the state drew legitimacy from Islam.
A rentier state created a rentier society, with oil gradually becoming the prime mover of the economy, resulting in a monoculture economy. As the desert area was landscaped and the construction boom led to the need for manpower, large migrations from South Asian countries took place. In many countries, the expatriate population exceeded the local population in numbers, with the exception of Iran and Iraq. Iran and Iraq had a fairly developed agricultural and industrial sector, with fully developed skilled labour, since they were old civilizations (not tribal like GCC countries). However, they were the worst to be affected by oil. At the time when the Nationalist Movement was going on India, this region was influenced by socialist ideals.
In time, the Bath Socialist Party came up in Egypt, Libya and Iraq. The nationalist movement in West Asia leaned towards the Left. This threatened the capitalists who were afraid that this tilt might go in Soviet favour. Oil interest, coupled with the fear of the Red, started promoting right wing politics in West Asia, and as such, was a determining factor in controlling the ideology of the region.
The surmounting insecurity felt by autocratic regimes (internally and externally), boosted defence expenditure, while the capitalists who sold arms to them, laughed their way to the bank. To further their profits, the capitalists encouraged tension among the countries of that region and sharpened contradictions between the Shia and Sunni, which were caused by political factors.
In a situation of turmoil, each ruler wanted to be the ruler of the entire region and each one’s hopes were whetted by a conscious policy of playing one against the other. It is another matter, of course, that the rulers were not foresighted enough to see through the trap and did not refrain from recurrent bickering over issues which could have been resolved amicably, had the Sufi ideals of austerity, forgiveness, equitable distribution of resources, and accommodation been adhered to. Mussadiq, earlier supported by the US, was removed in a CIA engineered coup – a fine example of the symbiotic relationship between autocratic regimes and the US (Saudi Arabia is a classic example, as well) with the exchange of oil for ensuring continuity and security of the regime. After the 1979, Islamic Revolution in Iran, the US could no longer endorse Iran and hence tried to raise Iraq against it.
The oil boom reached its peak between 1974-86. From the mid 80s onwards, the oil prices started declining. As a number of players started joining the international oil market, serious challenges rose for the Gulf countries. The leverage exercised by a few oil countries began to be questioned. The local people began raising questions as the state started cutting expenditure subsidies. With the advent of the ICT revolution, information from the outside world became freely accessible, despite filters. The state control over information ceased to exist as al-Jazeera changed society; disillusionment with the twin monsters of internal autocratic rule and external enemy, grew relentlessly.
As the ‘state led economic development’ model failed (the market also failed), liberalization was initiated with everyone clamouring to enter the bandwagon of WTO. This also meant that the legal system of WTO would be applicable; because of obligations to the WTO, the national legal system debated with it (judicial system, human rights and so on). This, coupled with the fact that the oil led economy had a limited capacity to create substantial number of jobs for its own manpower, was frustrating for the emerging youth bulge. The inequitable distribution of wealth, along with the social mores, made it difficult for young men, even to get married.
Subsequently, there was the rise of the private sector and knowledge economy. The knowledge revolution provided skilled manpower to meet the demands of the IT C (Information and communication technology) sector. Many educated, whose skills did not match the requirements of the industry, could not be absorbed. In the absence of industrial capital, cronie capital (finance capital) had held sway in West Asia, resulting in a dependent economy with limited employability (No attempts were made at industrialization for attaining self-sufficiency. This dependence suited the capitalists or Neo-liberals, as they were now called).
Clearly, there was growing unrest and demand for educational refoms. The abdication of responsibility by the state, swelled the manpower with no employability, but which was nevertheless, a part of the information outfit. The lapping up of foreign education brought an unprecedented change in the value and cultural ethics.
With recession looming large, efforts are required to build economies beyond oil, to make development sustainable and ensure that its fruit is equitably distributed. Early realization of the urgency of regional integration and encouraging women’s participation, based on Sufi ideals of accommodation and justice, is imperative. At the international level, taking recourse to a diversified energy mix (comprising of hydrocarbons as well as, other forms of renewable and non-renewable energy) is recommended since a blown up profile based on oil is not going to be sustainable. In fact, there is an urgent need to revisit the entire relationship between human consumption and resources. For this, Sufi teachings assume great importance.
Similarly, in the case of South Asia the uneven impact of neo-liberal reforms has been the cause of unrest in the region. The denial of basic human rights and the absence of equitable distribution of resources, has been responsible for seething discontent that brews over, every now and then. Coupled with this is the fact that bamd and [Jim (envy and desire, the twin evils which the Sufis and Bhakti saints guarded against) have been fuelled by the Neo-liberal (or Neo-imperialist) quest for more profits. A lifestyle of austerity (a hallmark of Sufis) is looked down upon. Self proclaimed custodians of religion (Islamists as well as Hindutva protagonists), encourage extremism and communal disharmony. Vested interests work hard to ensure that the rift between India and Pakistan (who have the potential to be natural allies) continues, if not widens. However, it is worth remembering that do billion ki ladai men Bandar roti kha jata hai.
Extremists seem to suffer from selective amnesia when upholding the Shariat. The Quran categorically states not lament the birth of a daughter, to give rightful inheritance to daughters, to acquire ilm (education) even if you have to travel to a place as far away as China, along with clearly defined rules regarding the virtuosity of men. However, all this, and more, is conveniently forgotten.
Not very long ago, Al Qaida, under Osama, was deployed to fight Russian presence in Afghanistan. When the US entered Lebanon, Al Qaida, strengthened by its experience in Afghanistan, decided to oppose the US. It had a wider canvas compared to the Taliban, since it had recruits from all over. Ironically, the neo-imperialists extolled the virtues of ‘jihad’ in their fight against Socialism, until the tables were turned on them. As a matter of fact, the ‘use and throw’ policy of ne0« imperialists has been counterproductive and has generated a strong sense of injustice among many people.
Pakistan has been used as an instrument of foreign policy, of the US. President Carter offered funds to the dictatorial regime of Zia-ul-Haq, to wage a proxy war. In this sense, it is ironic that the first ‘jihad’ in modern times was fought by the US, using Pakistani army. This gave strategic depth to Pakistan and contributed to the creation of the Taliban (Strangely, Talib means seeker, i.e., seeker of knowledge. The plural is Taliban, students).
All acts of violence and terrorism need to be dealt with, in a tough manner. At the same time, we need to be tough on the causes of terrorism. Sufism has the potential to lend a soft touch to this tough stance.