Pakistan in the Middle East

With joining the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) by Pakistan’s former Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif along with five thousand serving army men, Pakistan enters into the Middle East (ME) affairs. At best, the entry can be construed as meddling in the Arab affairs by an alliance headed by the representative of a non-Arab country.

No doubt Pakistan is an Islamic country – or a Muslim country owing to overwhelming Muslim population – like most ME countries, but Pakistan’s cultural background is more Asian than Arabic. Pakistan does not fully understand the Arab culture, which sprouts from the normative practices of nomadic tribes and which is replete with disputes and historical animosities mostly dipped in sectarian conflicts. The Arab armies pitted against the fellow Arab armies in the desert way of life carry an insight different from the insight cultivated in an agriculture country such as Pakistan. How General Sharif would cope with this challenge is not known. Secondly, it is also not known what happened to the pre-condition imposed by General Sharif that he would join the IMA only when Iran became part of the alliance.

Reportedly, the general purpose of the 41-nation IMA, which was constituted in December 2015, is to “coordinate efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan” – and this is why the IMA is also called Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition – whereas the specific purpose of the IMA is to help Saudi Arabia protect its southern region bordering Yemen against Houthi rebels. Nevertheless, one may argue that the actual purpose of the formation of the IMA is to forestall the activities of the Daesh in Saudi Arabia. That is, contrary to the initial claims, the purpose of the formation of the IMA is less offensive and more defensive.

Notwithstanding the rationale for the formation of the IMA, the visage of the IMA is necessarily sectarian, as Iran, Iraq and Syria having Shia-dominated governments have been excluded. This point has two repercussions. First, in the name of fighting terrorism, the IMA has been accentuating sectarian divisions not only in the ME but also in the rest of the Muslim countries. Second, the exclusion of Shia-dominated countries is tantamount to linking them to IMA’s nemesis. This is a very treacherous message.

Even if it is assumed that one of the IMA’s objectives is to protect Muslims countries from all terrorist groups and organisations, the IMA has failed to address two issues. First, countering terrorism at the militancy level is not a substitute for countering terrorism at the narrative level. In principle, a narrative that counters terrorism should have been promoted to influence the hearts and minds of the Muslims. Second, against the background that both Saudi Arabia and Iran jostle with each other for supremacy in the ME, the IMA offers a chance to Saudi Arabia to assert its dominant political role in the ME at the cost of any corresponding role of Iran. In principle, there is no problem if the political competition takes place, unless when the competition enters the phase of seeking the help of Muslim countries outside the ME to assert one’s supremacy in the ME and ensuring the compulsory exclusion of the other. In this way, the IMA seems to have developed an agenda more local than foreign. That is, the IMA is more an alliance to serve political objectives of a country in the ME than to protect Muslim countries from all terrorist groups and organisations outside the ME.

The IMA has failed to understand that its policy of (selective) exclusion has not only cornered the Shia-dominated countries in the ME but it has also fenced the Shia-Muslim population in the ME. That is, the IMA has disseminated the ominous message of division at the people-to-people level. This is no service of any cause and this is no way to fight terrorism. Instead of uniting the Muslims under one banner, the IMA has divided the Muslims further along sectarian lines both locally and internationally. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s joining the IMA through its ex-army chief and a serving brigade has made Pakistan become part of an effort to reduce Shia-Muslims of the ME to outcast.

The history of past three centuries witnessed the ME surviving under and being managed by an external imperial power, be it the Ottoman, the Western Europe (Britain and France) or the US. In a succession, all of them offered an alternative central authority to the ME to rally around. That is, the ME has inured itself to the presence of an overseer external to the region: the ME has not experienced any Arab country overseeing the rest of the ME and settling the intra-Arab disputes. In this way, the presence of intra-Arab divisions and the absence of any reconciliatory local center are the two main problems that have been besetting the ME. Interestingly, these two problems attract an interested overseer to the region. Against this background, on the one hand, the formation of the IMA can be seen offering an alternative to any external overseer while on the other hand, the formation of the IMA expresses a yearning for political leadership entailing a sectarian expression. This is how the seeds of future conflicts in the ME are sown.

Whilst the IMA declared that it would “operate in line with the United Nations and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) provisions on terrorism,” the IMA has donned the attire of a parallel OIC. In principle, the decision about the formation of the IMA should have been taken at the platform of the OIC. Secondly, the IMA should have operated under the supervision of the OIC as its extended arm, and not outside of it as a parallel organization. In fact, the formation of the IMA has aired the message of the moribund state of the OIC. That is, in the emergence of the IMA lies the descent of the OIC, and in the success of the IMA lies the seeds of disaster for the OIC.

Pakistan’s entry through General Sharif and a serving brigade may equipoise the abating role of the western countries (such as the US, Britain, and France) in the ME, but the entry is not without lasting effects. Interestingly, it is a burden-sharing effort encumbered with at least three repercussions. First, in the ME, political Islam expressed through the Salafi school of thought is also aware of new opportunities for its thriving created by the chaos in the post-2010 era of the Arab Spring. In the ME, although political Islam is of Arab hue expressed through the Daesh, it has got its ideological equivalent in the Deoband school of thought in Pakistan. Any effort by the IMA to suppress Salafi forces in the ME is bound to mount a blowback in Pakistan against the government through the allied Islamist forces. Second, the ME is perhaps the world’s most crisis-ridden area having the ability of transporting terrorism to the land of the countries involved in correcting any balance of power in the ME. Through terrorists attacks since 2015, Europe has learned this lesson the hard way and has almost bowed out of the ME. Pakistan also cannot stay immune from similar terrorist attacks. Third, the engagement of the IMA in any sectarian conflict in the ME is bound to stoke the flames of sectarian unrest in Pakistan.

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