Last week I participated in a panel discussion about the future of the Middle East. It was a lively gathering that brought panelists of extremely different viewpoints before an opinionated and intelligent audience.
I didn’t expect everyone to agree on the issues we discussed – in particular about the nature and role of Islam in the Middle East.
But I was struck by the polarised views in the room between those, on the one hand, who were searching for new ideas of how to solve some of the world’s many complex human problems and those, on the other, who seemed to view any critical challenge to today’s norms as unnatural, unworkable and unwelcome. This latter group seemed to hold sacrosanct institutions such as the nation state, neoliberal economics, secular politics and the role of international institutions like the UN, IMF or World Bank.
The viewpoint that appeared to unquestioningly favour preservation of the existing order seemed to me to be extraordinary when engaging in reasoned debate – i.e. one where people support their assertions with examples. For, whilst those people might have disagreed with my proposed solutions, it is hard – in the face of the existing evidence – to view the existing norms in the world today as so perfect that they cannot be challenged under any circumstance.
On the nation state, I mentioned that the artificial borders in the Middle East were established under the Sykes-Picot agreement at the end of World War One. They divided regions that were fairly homogenous for centuries – creating problems that extended beyond mere land disputes. The division of the land created huge disparities in demographics, energy resources, and water supply – amongst other things. For example, Libya is a land that has little agricultural sustainability, rich energy reserves, but a very small population [only 8 millions] and is divided from its energy-deficient, fertile neighbour Egypt, which has a vast young workforce amongst its population of over 80 million. Egypt has the largest population in the Arab world, which often has to seek employment in industries across the wealthy, but thinly populated Arabian Peninsula. Yemen, that has been struck with poverty has as a neighbour Saudi Arabia that is endowed with huge wealth. Yet the region shares a common language, common religion and common history.
The preservation of the nation state in the Arab Muslim world seems even more unnatural when free-trade zones have grown across the world. The most famous of these, the European Union, has taught us that for a free-trade zone to be properly successful it has to solve the conflict of opinion between maintaining political division and pooling of sufficient sovereignty to make the region work. Trade flourishes with fewer border controls, a level playing field in terms of regulation and tariffs; as well as a common currency. However, as we are learning with the EU project, this all breaks down if there is not some degree of fiscal union and pooled sovereignty that can be exercised efficiently when necessary.
On global economics: not to challenge or question neoliberal economics – and the culture of greed that goes with it, the reckless casino capitalism that is so unstable, the interest-based economic system and fiat currency – would be to deny what people have witnessed in the global markets since 2008.
On secular politics, I pointed out that secularism was born out of Europe’s peculiar history where the hegemony of the Catholic Church was challenged. Europe progressed when the Church’s restriction on the expression of new ideas was curtailed. However, by contrast, the Islamic world flourished most in terms of progress, ideas and civilization in an era when religion was central to society. So, to view the solutions to the whole world’s problem through Europe’s experience is completely wrong.
On the United Nations: one of the panelists praised their role in passing a resolution to support military action against Gaddafi, but had few answers when it was pointed out that this was the same United Nations that appointed – quite extraordinarily – the Gaddafi regime to its Human Rights council from May 2010 until early 2011.
A member of the audience pointed out that the United Nations, which supported intervention in Libya, has done nothing to help people being killed in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. In reply to this, one panelist said this contradictory behaviour was one of the U.N.’s unfortunate anomalies. I retorted that this was absolutely wrong. It was not an anomaly, but an example of consistent behaviour by the UN, which only ever acts when it is in the interests of powerful states [mainly the five permanent Security Council members]. I mentioned that Islam supports the idea of a fair, impartial international body that allows states to dialogue about common issues affecting the world, and also allows treaties between states – but that is very different to a body that secures the interests of the few, against the many and imposes their mutually beneficial treaty obligations upon every body else as “international law”.
On the IMF and World Bank, I mentioned that I was stunned that the newly appointed head of the Libyan central bank wanted to have these bodies establish the new banking system within Libya – when their intervention across the world has been disastrous for so many states. Many of the audience shared my incredulity about this.
In May 2011, US President Barack Obama made a high profile speech in Westminster Hall in London, addressing both houses of the British parliament.
One of the themes that he pushed was about the world in flux. Obama maintained that rather than feeling threatened by the rise of economies around the world outside of Europe and the United States, the West should be optimistic. Effectively, he was arguing that the world was made in the image of the West, who had carried the ideas born out of the European enlightenment and had been the architects of the international system that was established after the Second World War; and this world order, Obama seemed to be saying, favoured the West, even if countries like China, India and Brazil ascend within it.
He said: “we live in a global economy that is largely of our own making. And today, the competition for the best jobs and industries favours countries that are freethinking and forward-looking; countries with the most creative and innovative and entrepreneurial citizens. That gives nations like the United States and the United Kingdom an inherent advantage.”
This explains why the United States is not more worried about the rise of China – whom Western leaders are trying hard to improve trade links with. It is the world’s fastest growing economy, and it is argued is in the best position to challenge the US as the world’s biggest power. Indeed, such is America’s indebtedness to China that it could be severely damaged if China so chose to pursue an aggressive policy against. However, for China to challenge the United States would be to damage its biggest customer, as its largest export market is the United States.
The preservation of the existing world order is one of the key factors – if not the key factor – driving foreign policy in the United States, Britain and Europe.
This is why regions of the world, like the Middle East, that are undergoing huge change and looking for a new way forward need to escape the “Capitalist mindset”: i.e. a mindset that accepts a global order that empowers some and enslaves others.
Moreover, it is no accident that many of the emerging economies: Brazil, China, Russia and India – are rich in natural resources and have large populations and can compete with the United States and European Union on both counts.
Any state that pooled its resources such that it was rich in terms of population and natural resources; that tried to establish a fairer financial system and stable currency; that tried to establish a fairer system of global dialogue – such a state would be one that challenged the current world order that gives the United States, European Union and United Kingdom an inherent advantage.
Understanding that does more to explain the War on Islam – what they call the War on Terror. For the real threat they perceive from Islam, does not come from ‘terrorism’, violence or killing, as they would have you believe in the propaganda. The threat from Islam comes from its potential to challenge the existing hegemony of a world order that keeps banks and bankers secure at the expense of everyone else. Ultimately, even when one looks at the situation of ordinary people within Western states themselves, it is only the elites of the world that really benefit from the preservation of the existing order.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at [email protected]