Religion has nothing to do with it

By Zubeida Mustafa

‘Even the Crusades that have been projected for centuries as religious wars between Christianity and Islam were basically a struggle for the control of trade and territory, financed by the merchants of Venice,’ says Hamza Alavi

AS the active conflict in Iraq draws to a sanguinary close, there is much speculation about the future scenario in the region. Although it is generally accepted that the Americans, with their overwhelming military might, will succeed in subduing Iraq, no one doubts that the country is still nowhere close to peace and stability.

The conquerors cannot take it for granted that cooperation from the local population is theirs for the asking. There is a school of thought that is convinced that what is emerging is in line with the infamous ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis advanced a few years ago by Harvard academic Samuel Huntington. But is it?

Dawn decided to talk to Professor Hamza Alavi about the war in Iraq and whether he foresaw the clash of civilizations actually taking place. A social scientist who taught at Manchester and Sussex universities before he returned to Karachi a few years ago, Prof Alavi has a profound understanding of current international issues. He brings his knowledge of sociology and history, especially the Marxist interpretation, to bear on his analysis of contemporary events.

No sooner had I introduced the subject and mentioned the theory of the clash of civilizations that Alavi reacted vehemently, declaring without a moment’s hesitation, “Rubbish, nonsense!”

Explaining Huntington’s background, which is important to understand the context of the ‘clash’ theory, Alavi points out that Huntington is known to be one of the most reactionary right-wing political scientists at Harvard. He not only supported, but also gave active advice to those carrying out repressive US policies in Vietnam, Brazil and Guatemala.

As if to confirm that no right-minded person would really buy Huntington’s theory, Prof Alavi recalls a real life episode. “In 1972, Huntington was invited to Sussex when I was teaching there to give a lecture. But half the staff and most of the students boycotted his talk. This was not a denial of his freedom of expression, but, in reality, a symbolic protest against his reactionary views.”

Having given short shrift to the author of this theory, Prof Alavi proceeded to explain how military confrontations which are seemingly rooted in religion are actually driven by economic forces. “Now we know that the Crusades that have been projected for centuries as religious wars between Christianity and Islam were actually facilitated and financed by the merchants of Venice because they wanted to seize control of the narrow strip of land called Palestine through which the entire trade from Asia to Europe was routed. The Crusades were basically a struggle for the control of trade and territory,” he observes.

“In the light of this, the theory of the clash of civilizations carries no credibility at all. Given the fact that those who have articulated their opposition to the war in Iraq in the peace movement have all kinds of ideological beliefs, one can hardly view this as a confrontation between Christianity and Islam,” says Alavi, hastening to raise the key question himself: Then what is this conflict all about?

“Oil is the key factor because it is crucial for the American economy. The US oil consumption is about half the global production. Its concern is to control the production, marketing and pricing of oil. This interest goes back far into history. Oil first became a key issue in politics fifty years ago when Mossadegh nationalized Iranian oil.

“The CIA mounted a coup in Tehran to overthrow him and install the Shah who was an American puppet. The control of the Middle East oil has always been at the centre of the military struggles in the region,” Alavi answers his own question.

He points to the American strategy in the region in the 1950s and the ‘60s when Washington propped up client states — Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey being the key ones — which became members of the Baghdad Pact. The bankruptcy of this approach was soon proved in Iraq itself when it became the first one to let down the Americans when the coup led by Gen Kassim overthrew the monarchy in 1958.

“Since 1969, the Americans have developed the strategy of direct intervention in the region as against one of having client states. They set up a base at Diego Garcia, and deployed the Seventh Fleet in the Indian Ocean. In this way the US sought to use its military presence in the Middle East to facilitate its control over the oil resources of the Gulf,” explains Prof Alavi.

“America’s oil goals are to ensure the continuous flow of oil from the region in abundant quantities, break the oil cartel’s stranglehold on oil prices to keep them low, and counter the arc of instability that extends from the Middle East to South Asia,” he adds.

Like billions around the world, Alavi is convinced that it is not the clash of civilizations that has brought the American forces to Iraq. They have been drawn there by their strategic and economic interests.

“It is a coincidence that the countries in this region against which the American might has been brought to bear happen to be Muslim. Had this been a clash between two ideologically distinct civilizations, America would have found a natural ally in Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party, who were always secular in orientation.

“The religious symbols they later on adopted were designed to rally support in the Middle East. Besides, the Americans have also unleashed their fury against the countries of Latin America, and all of them are Christians.

“Saddam got into trouble with the Americans not because of his religion, but because he tried to mobilize Arab nationalism and to emerge as another Nasser,” Prof Alavi observes.

If so, why are religious parties and other orthodox elements making the war out to be a clash between Christianity and Islam? There is also the fear that is being quite openly voiced that after Iraq other Muslim states will also be attacked. Are such fears misplaced?

“Both sides are fighting for their narrow self-interests. But to concede that you are fighting for economic interests doesn’t give your case a strong moral appeal. Religion gives the required moral strength to one’s claims, whatever they might be. This explains the move to cloak self-interests in moral arguments, and a very powerful moral argument is religion, faith and belief,” maintains Alavi.

What next? The United States main foreign policy concern will now be to keep Chinese power under check. The Americans are worried about the emergence of China on the world scene, and they find India useful in that context for India has made it clear that its nuclear and missile programme is directed against China as well.

Another key development in international affairs is the emergence of Europe as a major economic and political power which is challenging American domination. This is manifesting itself in the form of the growing strength of the Euro and the weakening of the dollar. In this scenario, it is strange that Britain should not have sided with its European allies with whom its interests lie. As for Russia, it has been ambivalent in this power struggle.

These two key developments are not in line with the clash of civilization theory. Prof Alavi points out that the United States has proclaimed its intention of re-drawing the map of the Middle East to create small and manageable states. “It is not known what shape the region will take, but this will be the key development to keep an eye on in the post-war years.”

Source: Dawn