By Terry Lacey – Jakarta
President Obamas Cairo speech was intended to awaken Arabs and Muslims and invite them to a reconciliation with a new America. But the focus on Egypt and proximity of Palestine shifted attention from the need to change direction on the Global War On Terror, avoiding both the new centrality of Pakistan-Afghanistan, and the wider social and political lines of conflict between the US and the Muslim world.
Apparently even the Israelis have taken on board what US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke is saying about Pakistan where 2.5 million people, equivalent to half the population of Israel, are displaced by the fighting in Swat and the northwest of Pakistan along the Afghan border.
This is now the epicenter of what was the Global War On Terror. If this battle is lost, (militarily, politically or in terms of hearts and minds) then this risks destabilizing parts of North Africa, the Middle East and Central and Southern Asia.
Holbrooke protests that the US is giving over half the short term aid coming into Pakistan to help 2.5 million displaced people, while Manuel Bessler, Head of the UN Organization for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) says they have only received 20 percent of $543 million promised. (Robert Birsel, Reuters, 05.06.09).
Holbooke asks where is the Organization of Islamic Conference (whose member states may rue the day they did not help Pakistan through the storm)? Where are the Europeans whose Mediterranean and Central Asian strategies would unravel if things went seriously wrong in Pakistan and Afghanistan?
Eric Margolis, writing in the Winnepeg Sun, (17.05.09) says President Obama used heavy financial pressure, threatening to stop $2 billion of aid, and block a further $6.5 billion to make sure that the Pakistan Army went into the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), along the Afghan border to take on the Taliban.
But Margolis argues this has become a war by default against the rebellious Pashtun, now (he says) collectively mis-labelled ´Taliban´, of whom 26 million live in Pakistan and 16 million live in Afghanistan, divided by the British colonial Durand Line.
Margolis says the Pashtun could become an independence movement (shades of Kurdistan). If so they would be propelled by a sense of injustice that their historical deal with Pakistan cannot protect them from drones, a US-backed war and becoming internal refugees in their own land.
Unless Pakistan gets substantive support for a more holistic and primarily non-military strategy, it could end up in three parts, like Iraq, with the Pashtun and Baluchi tribes tempted to go their own way. Palestine is already in three parts. Somalia is in more than three parts.
All the Kings horses and all the Kings men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. But the hope is that there can be a process of reconciliation and of sticking broken nations back together.
So the flip side of President Obama´s Cairo speech is the reality of a world where too many countries face the possibility of being sliced up like a political pizza.
The Muslim world needs to regulate and resolve a complex competition between urban middle and working class modernizers, rural agrarian conservatives and hill tribesmen whose version of Islam shields tribal social traditions.
But these broader conflicts must be addressed and solved by development strategies and finance, as globalization makes the world smaller every day. This central struggle against under-development was not highlighted in Cairo.
As Meidyatama Suryodiningrat said in the Jakarta Post (05.06.09) the Cairo speech seemed more like a call to the 20 percent of Muslims who live in the Arab world, “In many ways the speech was more about shoring up support for US policy in the [Middle East] region than a dialogue of civilizations”.
Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, India and Turkey with their large Muslim populations, and many smaller and medium Muslim majority countries in Africa and Asia, do not need convincing of the need to take the democratic road or economic liberalization, but they do need help to make it work, and they represent almost 80 percent of the worlds Muslims.
So by all means focus on Palestine, Israel and the Middle East, but not at the expense of the big picture.
– Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.