In 1779, the king of Morocco was among the first rulers to write to George Washington and accept the independence of the newly founded Republic. Soon thereafter the Middle East faded from American minds, reviving only after World War II with the Palestine conflict and the discovery of oil. Now the region is at dead-center of America’s consciousness, and there is as much opportunity as risk in how Washington conducts itself. This a historic opportunity to mold a geopolitical order in consonance with both American ideals and the Islamic ethos.
First, American diplomacy must encourage democratization. Kings and emirs must make room for elected representatives who speak for the people.
Economic democracy is just as important. Surplus capital from the Gulf oil-producers must be invested in Muslim lands rather than hoarded in Swiss banks. There must be investment in agriculture in the Sudan, electronics in Pakistan, pharmaceuticals in Egypt, metallurgy in Turkey. The economies of the Middle East complement each. A marriage of oil money with surplus labor from Egypt and business acumen from Pakistan and Lebanon could well turn the area from a basket case into a breadbasket.
The current national boundaries are an anachronism and a remnant of the colonial past which are bound to be challenged in the future, just as they have been challenged by Saddam Hussein. The Islamic world is an entity with its own distinct culture, history and religion. This unity must be respected by moving toward a common market extending from Casablanca to Karachi, with more porous national boundaries and free movement of citizens and goods.
There are also three specific conflicts that continue to grate on the Islamic world: the Palestinian diaspora, India’s insistence on retaining Muslim Kashmir and the civil war in Eritrea. A sustained and determined effort must be made by Washington to resolve these disputes so as to guarantee the political and human rights of the people in all three of these conflicts.
Once the political and economic issues are addressed, religion will cease to be an instrument of charlatans and become an instrument of social well-being. One of the great disappointments in the Gulf conflict is the sight of the mullahs in Riyadh and Baghdad calling the faithful from their pulpits to wage war. Islam in its true form is a force for peace in the global village, advocating peace with the self, peace with fellow men and peace with nature. The call to war, especially upon fellow Muslims, betrays a dependence of the men of religion on their political masters.
Only the United States has the political stamina and military muscle to shape such events. It is in a unique position to encourage a political order in the Middle East that respects the cultural, historical and religious aspirations of the people and is also in keeping with the best traditions of the American Republic.