‘Religious Extremism Was an Instrument of Resistance to the Oppression from the Domestic State Order and the Interventions of Western Powers…, Particularly the United States’
There have been several books on West Asia, both descriptive and prescriptive. What was your objective in writing West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games?
While there are numerous books on West Asia there are very few books on the region as a whole, which also provide a historical perspective. If you see the books that are available now, they focus on a specific region, country or an issue. My book is quite different. It looks at the region as a whole, which is why it is called West Asia at War. It covers the entire regional landscape from Iran up to Morocco.
To the best of my knowledge, there have only been one or two books in the last 20 years which have this kind of broad coverage. There is, for instance, The Arabs by Eugene Rogan, that was written in 2009. My book contains not only a lot of facts and discusses events, but it also provides a personal perspective. To that extent, I believe it would be of interest to the average Indian reader who is not familiar with the nuances and background details of what has been happening in the region.
You have served in the region and have written a few books on different aspects of West Asian politics and society. What has remained unchanged in the region and what has changed since your time there?
I retired from foreign service about 10 years ago and not much has changed since then. The one issue that has been agitating the region for the last century is the same—the problem of governance. The people had earlier endured a colonial administration, now they have authoritarian governments, both of which have been oppressive.
The second factor that has complicated the scenario in the region has been the intervention of external powers. If you look at the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, it was Britain and France which dominated the region; in the second half of the twentieth century, it has been the Americans.
The third enduring factor has been resistance to repression. Initially, there was resistance to colonial powers and the emergence of new forms of governance in the shape of the Republics. Then there was Islamic extremism which was also a form of resistance against the interventions of foreign powers in regional affairs. The attack of 9/11, for example, is a robust expression of resistance.
The most recent expression of resistance and which is palpable even today are the Arab Spring uprisings. These uprisings covered the entire region—starting in Tunisia, within a few weeks they had already spread right across North Africa and West Asia. The uprisings brought down four authoritarian rulers who had been in place for more than 20 years and in some instances over more than 30 years. Of course, entrenched state power has been very coercive in suppressing these agitations for reform; that pattern of regional politics has also not changed.
Do you think religious radicalisation in the region can be reversed? What conditions must be met for that to happen?
When we seek to analyse the scenario relating to extremism, we have to look at the context in which it appeared, why it became so robust, and why it is waning today. I would argue that religious extremism was an instrument of resistance to the oppression from the domestic state order and the interventions of western powers in regional politics, particularly by the United States.
The origins of contemporary extremism lie in the state-sponsored ‘global jihad’ in Afghanistan. It takes some effort to recall that the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had collectively sponsored the global jihad in Afghanistan. Thousands of people from different Muslim countries were encouraged by their governments to go to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where they got radicalised and transformed into militants fighting Soviet occupation of a Muslim country. The states concerned were happy to use the ideology of extremist Islam as a weapon against Soviet occupation.
But they could not anticipate the implications of what they had started. The most important consequence of the Afghan jihad was the sense of triumph among the militants after Soviet troops left Afghanistan and, within three years, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The jihadis thought that now that we are embraced by Allah, we need to do His work. He needs a cleansing of political order and all the enemies of Islam must be annihilated. Who were these enemies? The rulers in West Asia and their American sponsors. Hence began the spurt of attacks in different parts of West Asia and North Africa by Afghan veterans who went to fight in different theatres—Chechnya, Bosnia, Egypt, Algeria. But their main target was the United States—viewed as the ‘far enemy’. The attacks on the US culminated with the 9/11 assaults on the US mainland.
Similarly, the Islamic State (IS) originated as a force of resistance against American occupation of Iraq. The Taliban, though very different from Al Qaeda and the IS, were also a response to American occupation of their country.
I believe that extremist Islam as the basis of resistance has now served its purpose. It has ensured that the American game plan to politically and militarily dominate West Asia has not been successful. Now, new instruments of resistance will have to emerge because the problem at its core has not been resolved—you still have authoritarian and tyrannical rulers. The resistance will continue, but it may not take the shape of faith-based extremism.
Why does West Asia remain conflict-ridden? How much of this is the consequence of outside interference and how much is its domestic politics?
First, it is important to recall that state order in West Asia was constructed by colonial powers to serve their own interests. It did not have a natural basis—most states so constructed had tribes, clans and even families that were divided. Secondly, there were other intervention by the west, particularly the creation of Israel, which continues to be the greatest source of regional conflict and instability.
The third source of regional conflicts is that, as the regimes sponsored by colonial powers were overthrown, they were replaced not by popular participatory systems but by an authoritarian order. Initially, they were welcomed but it was soon apparent that these authoritarian systems were failing to deliver on their promises—they only led to military defeat, poor economic performance, and rampant poverty accompanied by corruption that enriched a small coterie around the rulers. As they continued to fail politically, they became more cruel, more oppressive.
Given that regional state order is fragile, it has, not surprisingly, also fomented insecurities among regional powers and encouraged intra-regional competitions as major regional states seek to safeguard or promote their interests at the expense of their neighbours. Add to this the periodic military interventions by the US and the extremist militants that confront them, and you have a region awash with confrontations and conflicts.
China has a phrase to describe itself—democracy with Chinese characteristics. Do you think there can be a West Asian model of democracy?
I have seen no evidence of this as yet. What the region’s rulers dearly wish for is to co-opt their people into supporting the authoritarian state order on the basis that it provides for their security and welfare. However, whenever there are dissidents who don’t refuse to accept this tyranny, state authorities become harsh and use coercion to stamp out dissent. The Gulf regimes, with small populations and access to huge financial resources, are generally able to co-opt their people into accepting the authoritarian system much more easily than those regimes that have no access to oil revenues. I believe that, until you have genuine, popular participation in governance, you will have an unstable order at home and sense of insecurity abroad.
Given the geopolitical flux, the US’ waning influence and rising Chinese power, how do you see West Asian politics changing? Since China has the policy of non-interference in domestic issues of other nations, do you think the US endeavour of exporting democracy will suffer a setback?
The Americans have indicated that they would like to disengage from the region and focus more on the Indo-Pacific, particularly to confront the direct challenge from China in the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Western Pacific in general. Simultaneously, we have seen that China, in association with Russia, is expanding its engagements with West Asia. We should also note that the US has not only shown an inclination towards disengagement from the region, it has also lost a lot of credibility as a regional security- provider—very rarely has it met the expectations of people who are its allies. Over the last decade, there has been an increasing American fatigue with West Asia and increasing West Asian fatigue with America.
So, you are looking at a region where the Americans are no longer seen as a credible presence and the countries of the region for the first time in several decades are taking foreign policy positions independent of the American influence. These include: the five rounds of Saudi-Iran talks; normalisation of ties with Israel by the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan; Turkey’s outreach to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, the UAE’s ambitious activism in Yemen, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa, and nascent efforts being made by Iraq to build an economic and political alliance with Jordan and Egypt.
All the countries of West Asia now are also building relations with China and Russia. As far as Russia is concerned, its expanding presence is part of its aspirations for big power status. The Russians have been successful so far—they are diplomatically involved in the region and are expanding their role there. In the context of Ukraine, an important point to note is that other than Kuwait, not a single country of West Asia and North Africa has supported the Americans and imposed sanctions on Russia.
China has a very unique interest in the region which is connected with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The success of the BRI requires a heavy Chinese investment, the region’s participation in the project, and a degree of stability in the region. However, Biden’s statement that the US would like to confront China in the Western Pacific makes no sense to me: given China’s expanding footprint in the region, West Asia will remain the theatre of competition between the US and China.
India has historically had a close relationship with the region, especially with the Arab states, as opposed to Israel. But now with great military equipment dependence on Israel, the traditional equations are changing. Throw in Iran in the mix and the balancing act becomes even more complex. As a former diplomat, what would be your advice to your fraternity?
India has to recognise that the region is in a churn—politically, economically, diplomatically. Relationships within the region are changing because the US’ heavy hand is retreating. However, India has yet to indicate how it fits into this? It is a matter of some disappointment to me that India is not an active role player in this diplomatic churn and making its presence felt in the region.
Its approach to the region has traditionally been to cultivate relations on a bilateral as well as transactional basis. This has meant separate relations with each country. However, now the times have changed. While the Chinese and Russians are constantly engaging with the region and deepening and expanding their influence, where is India? India is still pursuing the old approach of bilateral and transactional relationships.
I feel this is a mistake. I feel that India must be actively involved in the politics of the region. My argument is that India has engaged with the region for 5,000 years. India has a very high status in the region. Both the region and India have a high level of cultural comfort and this pattern of relations has been taken forward and, indeed, consolidated by Prime Minister Modi.
We also have very high stakes in the region—80 per cent of India’s oil and 50 per cent of natural gas comes from the region. This region is our major partner in terms of trade and investments. We are also logistically dependent on Iran to connect with Afghanistan and Central Asia and Russia. Above all, we have eight and a half million Indians living in the region, who remit home USD35 billion annually. India also enjoys high credibility in the region—the countries know India is non-intrusive, non-hegemonic and non-prescriptive.
We should take a fresh look at our approach to the region and actively promote regional peace, preferably in partnership with other Asian states which share our interest in regional stability.
Is it at all possible that there be peace in the region? Can we aspire to an interdependent, mutually cooperative Asia?
The roots of conflict in the region lie in the ambitions and insecurities of the regional players and the interventions of major foreign powers. If you want to have peace in the region, the insecurities of major players have to be addressed; that is not easy because the problems between, say, Israel and Iran or between Iran and Saudi Arabia, lie deep in their history and are founded on beliefs and aspirations, which are mutually exclusive. I cannot envisage a scenario in the near future when, with a magic wand, these issues will be addressed.
Having said this, I have in mind a cooperative regional security arrangement. This means, the only way we can have regional security and peace is to bring the players of the region together on one platform. Drawing from ideas thrown up by the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that, amidst deep regional contentions, ensured peace in Europe for over a century, I suggest that an India-led initiative can be shaped to implement the principles of Westphalia to achieve peace in West Asia. This will require a sustained commitment by Indian diplomats and leaders and their Asian partners. This will be a long-drawn and complex effort, but I do believe this is an effort worth making.
Finally, writing on contemporary issues is challenging because there is a desire to include the most recent events. What challenges did you face in writing this book?
The main challenge that I had was to have a book that was reader friendly. I wanted to write a book that will be read by an average reader—an Indian who follows events in West Asia relating to conflict, petroleum, religion, violence, trade and investments, and, at the same time, is aware that the eight-and-a-half million Indians are resident in the region. But the issues involved are complex, contentious and have their own historical background—I have tried to give the reader a coherent understanding of the region, but without sacrificing the academic rigour that is required in writing something that is controversial, polemical and complicated. To combine readability with academic rigour was the challenge I faced.
At the end of each chapter, I have also provided a section titled ‘Reflections’, which sets out the significance and longer-term implications of the events examined in the chapter. In this section, I am actually answering the questions that a reader might raise.