Pakistan in the Middle East

Daily: The Nation
Date: 08.05.17

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 carries 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 presumed that one of 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 a 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 an alliance more 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 five thousand serving army men
(equivalent to a 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 of today. 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 decay 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 five thousand serving army men 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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