The Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur last week raised many familiar questions about the role of religion in promoting solidarity between nations; it also reminded us of the well-known answer that national interest often tends to trump shared faith. The gathering in Kuala Lumpur did bring some key Islamic nations together, but it also revealed the deepening schisms in the Muslim world today that are of considerable importance for the Subcontinent.
While Malaysia, Turkey and Qatar were the moving forces behind the summit, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates were among the notable absentees. Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic nation, kept a low profile at the summit, while Pakistan’s Imran Khan was a surprising dropout at the last minute.
For Mahathir Mohamad, the summit, and the diplomacy surrounding it are means to increase his domestic room for manoeuvering and win a leadership role in the Muslim world. Many in the Middle East, however, see the claims for Islamic leadership from outside the region with either bemusement or condescension.
The real contestation for leading the Islamic world remains within the Middle East. Turkey and Iran have a long tradition of challenging the Saudi leadership of the Islamic world. Qatar, which punches way above its weight, has now joined their ranks.
The Saudis expressed displeasure at convening the Islamic nations outside the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation. Mahathir, of course, claimed that the summit was not about undermining the OIC and its Saudi leadership. But, he said enough to suggest that the OIC has not been an effective instrument in addressing the contemporary challenges facing the Islamic world.
The idea that religion can bind people together has an enduring appeal. In practice though, religion has not been enough to sustain unity within and among nations that profess a common faith. Many countries in the Islamic world struggle to respect the rights of minorities, Muslim or non-Muslim, and cope with the problems of religious sectarianism and ethnic separatism.
If keeping the faithful together within a nation is hard enough, it is a lot harder to promote supra-national solidarity in the name of Islam. The origins of pan Islamism date back to the late 19th century, but its record in binding nations has not been impressive.
The same is true of ethnicity-based solidarity in the world. For example, the pan-Arab and pan-Asian movements that stirred the world in the 20th century, are today, pale shadows of themselves. While the decline of pan-Arabism has been evident, the idea of Asian solidarity endures. But, just look beneath the rhetoric on “Asian solidarity”, and you will find deep contradictions between, for example, China and India, and China and Japan.
Solidarity based on other ideologies, class or political values, too has been difficult to sustain for long periods. The communist solidarity that seemed so powerful in the middle of the 20th century crashed quickly against the rocks of nationalism in Central Europe, Russia and China.
On the face of it, shared values — political and economic liberalism — have been far more successful in holding together the so-called political and economic “West”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became ever harder to sustain harmony within the western world. US president Donald Trump appears determined to restructure the political-economic institutions built after the World War II. Intra-Western contradictions shaped the world before the middle of the 20th century, and are becoming an important factor in the 21st century. In all these cases, the tension between transcendental ideologies and narrow national interests has often been resolved in favour of the latter.
The splits in the Islamic world exposed by the Malaysian summit should be of great interest to the Subcontinent. The main differences are about political Islam and its role in shaping the domestic structures in Muslim nations. Turkey and Qatar have championed the Muslim Brotherhood that seeks to overthrow the current political order in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, as well as in Egypt. Iran has its own variant of political Islam for export.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE seek to protect their own societies and state structures from external onslaught, and are pushing back. Beyond the nature and role of Islam, there is also the growing competition among the major Middle Eastern states for strategic influence in the region and beyond.
The South-Asian political discourse tends to see the Muslim world as a monolith. That has become increasingly difficult to maintain amidst the current conflicts in the Middle East.
Imran Khan has showcased his special relationships with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysia’s Mahathir. He was supposed to play a leading role at the Kuala Lumpur summit. But, apparently under pressure from the Saudis and the Emiratis, his main economic benefactors, he chose to stay home.
For Delhi too, the divisions in the Islamic world are of significance. If Malaysia and Turkey have become increasingly critical of the NDA government’s policies, the UAE and the Saudis have given India the benefit of doubt, until now. The Qatar-owned Al Jazeera channel has run a far more damaging campaign against Delhi in recent months than the much-maligned New York Times.
Delhi has an urgent need to remove the growing negative perceptions of its domestic policies in the Middle East and more broadly the Muslim world. In his speech at a rally in Delhi on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to India’s expanding friendships in the Middle East during the last few years. The PM, however, might be in the danger of squandering a major diplomatic achievement, if he miscalculates the external costs of the government’s domestic politics. Worse still, Delhi might be giving an opportunity to an otherwise divided world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to agree in their disapproval of India’s domestic politics.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 24, 2019 under the title “When politics hurts diplomacy.” The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express
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