Inside Europe

May 25, 2007

View from Dubai


What is El Emara? asks my Belarusian friend and journalist with a beatific smile that never seems to touch his deep-set, sad blue eyes. Andrej Dynko has had a far from pleasant experience in his native Belarus. He had to spend some time in his country’s notorious prisons for hurling too many uncomfortable questions at the powers that be. That hasn’t stopped him from coming up with more questions though.

We are taking a late evening stroll along the sleepy boulevard next to our hotel in Brussels. It’s half past eight. Yet the sun doesn’t appear to have gone home. There is so much light it looks as if it’s still 5 in the evening. And there’s a reinvigorating nip in the pleasantly caressing, fragrant air. Having spent the past couple of weeks back home in a typical Indian summer, it is refreshing to be in Brussels.

The city is home to the headquarters of the European Union, the powerful economic club of 27 nations and the world’s biggest free trade zone. Dynko, who edits a political weekly Nasha Niva, is visiting Brussels like me in connection with EU’s Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize ceremony. He obviously thinks coming from the Middle East I could have the answer to his query.

Unfortunately, yours truly is as familiar with the glory of Arabic language as Bush had been with Musharraf and Vajpayee before his election by the US Supreme Court.

Which is a real disgrace. Having lived and worked in Dubai for years, one should be ashamed of oneself if one’s familiarity with the Arabs and their rich language and culture doesn’t go beyond the regulation shawarma, sheesha, desert safaris and a mindless emphasis on ‘khallas’ and ‘maafi mushkil’.

The trouble is, you may live and work in the UAE for years without ever really bothering or requiring to learn the local language. Which is what most expatriates from India, Pakistan and the West do. They live, work and move often all their lives in the limited spheres of their communities, without ever trying to understand the host country or society.

This says something about this great country and its amazing people, especially their tradition of tolerance and respect towards guests and guest workers. Returning to Brussels, I told Dynko that El Emara was perhaps an improvisation on Amara, a common Arab and Muslim female name. And in this Brussels neighbourhood, from where the EU parliament and headquarters are only a stone’s throw away, you come across hundreds of Arab and Muslim sounding names of cafes, shops and fast food joints.

Watching roadside cafes with animatedly chatting North African Arabs enjoying their steaming Turkish coffee or kebab, you would think you have stepped back in time or landed in Cairo or Casablanca thanks to your pilot’s error of judgment. Indian and Pakistani takeaways greet you as soon as you step out of Brussels’ Midi Station, where our high speed train had taken us, promising you ‘Islamic’ food. My apprehensions about ‘halal’ food had been clearly far from justified. Unlike the rest of Europe, this great city steeped in history and tradition somehow managed to escape the destruction of the two World Wars thanks to Belgian leaders’ clever diplomacy and business sense.

Having been repeatedly invaded by almost all its big neighbours, especially by the French, the Belgians have over the centuries mastered the fine art of diplomacy and political tightrope walking.

Which is perhaps why Brussels has for over the past century or so remained the economic and political hub of Europe. The birth and success of the European Community and later the EU have only ensured and emphasised this unchallenged preeminence of Brussels.

Not for nothing Brussels is considered Europe’s heart. And the large Arab and Muslim community in Belgium, especially in Brussels, is working hard to win it over. There are more than 200,000 Muslims in Brussels alone, a city of one million people who appear to be remarkably at peace with themselves and their incredibly serene city.

From flight and train attendants of North African descent to hotel receptionists of South Asian origin, the Muslims are everywhere. And there are plenty of headscarves too.

If you thought the 9/11 events and Bush’s war on Muslims have forced the believers to lie low or recede to the margins of European society, think again.

Far from retiring to the oblivion of their ghettos, Arabs and Muslims form a healthy part of the mainstream and host societies in this part of the world. At the same time, they are comfortable with their religious and cultural identity.

And it’s a proud and assertive Islam that continues to spread its wings, constantly conquering new territory in what is considered the citadel of Christian Europe. The Muslims, after Christians, are already the largest religious community and Islam is the fastest growing faith across Europe. No wonder Pope Benedict XVI is getting increasingly concerned over the changing religious profile of the continent and his flock.

But whether Europeans love or hate Muslims, they are there to stay and the hosts can do little about it. Besides, if the Muslims and other immigrants continue to pour into Europe in droves looking for jobs and a better life, the aging Europe too needs the young arrivals.

Not only the continent is not getting any younger, constantly falling birth rates in the indigenous, Caucasian populations pose a serious challenge to the continent’s future. The immigrants fill this vacuum. So this is a mutually benefiting, win-win relationship.

But it would be a disservice to countries like Belgium if you don’t recognize the fact that they have gone out of their way to welcome the never-ending stream of visitors.

Although Belgium doesn’t have an awfully good record in Africa in its colonies like Congo, it hasn’t been bad to Arab and Muslim immigrants. It wooed hundreds of thousands of North African Arabs and Muslims after the World War II to work in its coalmines.

The present generation of Arabs and Muslims in Belgium are mostly the children of those miners. Significantly, instead of forcing their own culture and ethos on the new arrivals, the Belgians have allowed them to live and flourish in their own space retaining their distinct identity.

It’s this approach to integration that is at the heart of the EU experiment.

As a result, the modern Belgian Arabs and Muslims are equally at ease with both Arabic, the language of their forefathers, and Flemish, the language of the country of their choice. So contrary to what Kipling warned, the East and West not only meet in modern Europe but also appear to be enjoying the encounter.

And just as the large expatriate community in the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries has played a decisive role in building their host countries, Arabs and Muslims can proudly claim they have a stake in the progress and development of Europe, especially states like Belgium, France and Germany, the original architects of EU. If Belgium and France are home to Arabs, Germany hosts a huge community of Turkish Muslims.

It’s often noted with regret by Muslim historians that Europe would have been part of Muslim world if only the Turks had persisted in their siege of Vienna in the 16th century. The powerful Ottoman army had swept through the Balkans, Greece and Asia Minor to reach Vienna by 1529. The long siege of Vienna, the gateway to Europe, however failed to open the way for Islam. The Turks returned in 1683, under the leadership of Mustafa Pasha, to knock at the gate of Vienna once again.

The second attempt too failed to succeed despite the perseverance and huge losses suffered by the Turks. The Muslim armies were faced with an impregnable wall of resistance largely built by the Pope Innocent XI. The Pope managed to unite the Christian Europe against the ‘infidels’ in the name of God and the survival of Christendom.

As a result, the Muslim armies were forced to retreat from Vienna once again. The Ottoman tide turned at the Gates of Vienna and receded gradually, beginning its long withdrawal through the Balkans and Greece into Asia Minor over the next two centuries.

But, you know, history has an annoying habit of repeating itself. For what the Turks failed to accomplish four centuries ago — conquer Europe — by force appears possible today. The Muslims are winning Europe, not by force as the Ottoman Caliphate had repeatedly sought to do and failed. The once all-white, all-Christian continent is being changed from within.

The Europe that steeled itself against the onslaught of invading Turkish armies four centuries ago is opening itself to the soft power of Islam. The continent that once proudly stood its ground in the face of the legendary Muslim firepower has submitted itself to Islam’s power of persuasion. Never underestimate the power of faith.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at


Top EU award for Aijaz Zaka Syed

May 25, 2007

Top EU award for Aijaz Zaka Syed

By a staff reporter

7 May 2007

DUBAI — European Union Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel on Thursday presented the Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize for the Middle East to Khaleej Times journalist and columnist Aijaz Zaka Syed at a grand ceremony at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

Syed, originally from India, had been selected for the prestigious European media award for his article on the humanitarian situation in Sudan’s Darfur region that had appeared in Khaleej Times’ Opinion section (Disgrace of Darfur, Oct 31).

Presenting the prize to Syed, Commissioner Michel said that democracy and the freedom of the Press are essential to development and progress.

Speaking on the occasion, Syed called for the Arab and Muslim world to play a more effective role in ending the conflict in Darfur.

He cautioned that reckless interference by big powers would only exacerbate the situation. Only conciliatory efforts by the Arab and Muslim nations can bring peace to Darfur, he stressed. The Natali prize commemorates Lorenzo Natali, a former European Commissioner for Development and a fervent defender of human rights and democracy.

Iran is not Iraq

April 8, 2007

View from Dubai

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

BEING based in Dubai offers you a rare, vantage point view over the Middle East. And Iran is not far from where we are.

The Bushehr nuclear power plant — at the heart of Iran’s standoff with the West — and the strategic port of Bandar Abbas are a stone’s throw away from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and many Gulf cities.

We are too close to the Persian giant for comfort. We can often feel the currents and shocks of geopolitical upheavals in Iran — almost literally. Which explains why we are more than apprehensive about the shape of things to come.

Not surprisingly Iran is currently the favourite subject of small talk as well as media chatter in our part of the world. This despite the fact that UAE has always been an oasis of peace and security in the volatile region, even during the successive Gulf wars. And journalist friends from around the world breathlessly ask us: “What do you think? Is the war imminent?” Like all good, old-fashioned hacks, they are secretly hoping for bad news. After all, there’s nothing like a good war to boost your circulation figures or viewer ratings. In fact, what would we journalists do without leaders like Bush and Ahmadinejad? Life would be so dull without the shenanigans of the two gentlemen. Of course, you can’t put the two in the same league. Indeed, they live on different planets. All good journalists love bad news. And the current leaders of Iran and US generate enough of it. While Bush’s own party, American people and the US allies and friends are at their wits’ end making sense of the royal mess that he has unleashed at home and abroad, the leader of the free world himself appears to revel in it. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, wouldn’t miss any opportunity to beat the ‘Big Satan’ and the rest of his allies with the big stick of fiery rhetoric and cold reason he always carries with him.There are many like me who find it hard not to admire the Iran leader for his courage to take on the big bullies of our world. And trust me, it is not only in the Muslim world that Ahmadinejad strikes a receptive chord. In a remarkably short period, the ordinarily dressed, diminutive leader has built himself a constituency that is not limited to the Middle East or Muslim world. Okay, Ahmadinejad is unreasonable to the point of being absurd in denying the Holocaust and suffering of Jewish people. It’s not easy defending him when he talks of rubbing Israel off the map — although he is alluding to the historical injustice the creation of Israel has inflicted on Palestinians. He is of course playing to the gallery. But he has endeared himself to Muslims and oppressed people everywhere by standing up for a wronged people.

At the same time, I can’t close my eyes to the reality that the Iranian president, by his un-diplomatic and hawkish posturing, has managed to earn more enemies for Iran during the past year and half than all the leaders of the Islamic republic have over the past quarter century or so. If the US and its ever-willing allies are today spoiling for a duel with Iran, Ahmadinejad’s style of leadership has played not too insignificant a role in it. But the Iran leader is not entirely to blame for the current confrontation with the West and tensions in the neighbourhood.Bush and his neocon pals never needed an invitation to take on the Islamist Iran. Just as they didn’t require a provocation to strike at Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iran had been one of the key targets of the neocons, according to the blueprint unveiled during Bush’s first year in office. The ambitious plan for a new American century seeks to reshape the Middle East and the Muslim world by taking out the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and others. Iraq, part of Bush’s original axis of evil, has already been liberated and democratised, in accordance with the neocon-Zionist worldview. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may be next in line. That plan is still on the table, as Bush would put it, despite the series of humiliating defeats the neocons have suffered and all-round havoc they have wreaked. So the attack on Iran — absolutely nutty as the idea may sound — may still be coming. In fact, the possibility of a US-Israel combine strike on the Islamic republic is growing by the day and the hour. So it’s not a matter of IF but WHEN Iran is likely to get hit by the Coalition of the Willing. The Iran-UK row over the 15 British sailors is only a tiny piece of the Middle East jigsaw that will unravel in the days and months to come. So don’t be surprised if Blair is ‘disgusted’ at Iran’s ‘behaviour’ that made the sailors sing on Iran TV admitting they were indeed in Iranian waters. Indeed, Blair has every right to protest Iran’s treatment of the detained Britons. For God’s sake, don’t the mullahs know how to treat the enemy combatants? When will the Arabs and Muslims learn the rules of engagement of the civilised world? Why there were no hoods, no dogs or leashes! Instead the British sailors were given new suits and traditional gifts by the Iranians before their release. Is this the way to treat the enemy? It seems the Iranians drew no lessons from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. It’s understandable then as soon as the sailors landed in Britain, Blair slammed the Iranian regime for its ‘involvement in terrorism’. Looks like the Iranians will have to learn it the hard way. Just as the Iraqis have. But Iran is no Iraq. For one, the Islamic republic is not the toothless tiger that Iraq had become in the twilight years of Saddam. The long war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and then the subsequent attack by the US and its allies under Bush senior had reduced the Baathist Iraq to a hallowed, cardboard country. Let alone the Weapons of Mass Destruction that Bush claimed Saddam had and the late dictator pretended to possess, Iraq didn’t even have enough conventional arms or men to defend the country. No wonder the regime collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions at the mere touch of the invader. But Bush and company would be committing a historic blunder — even bigger than Iraq – if they went ahead and attacked Iran. Iranians are a young nation with over sixty per cent of its population being born after the 1979 Revolution. Fiercely patriotic and proud of their ancient past as well as Islamic identity, the 70-million strong people have never been more united as a nation. And they would fight with their lives to defend every inch of their territory. Not only would an attack on Iran add to the overstretched US coalition’s troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is certain to inflame the already restive Middle East and rest of the Muslim world.
Although Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons – at least not yet – to stave off aggression, it has other options of retaliating.
It boasts a standing army of 450,000 troops as well as long-range missiles that could hit Israel and even Europe. More importantly, a desperate Iran can play havoc with the global economy by blocking the Strait of Hormuz through which much of the world’s oil supply is routed. Just a few missiles or gunboats could bring down vessels and block the channel, hitting the global oil supplies with untold negative consequences for our world. Then there is the humanitarian suffering of epic proportions that is sure to follow such a dangerous, pointless and unjust war. The Oxford Research Group has warned that up to 10,000 people would die immediately if the US bombed Iran’s nuclear sites, and that an attack on the Bushehr nuclear reactor could send a radioactive cloud over the Gulf. If the US uses nuclear weapons, such as earth-penetrating bunker buster bombs, radioactive fallout would become even more disastrous. Which is why I wonder how the American people can allow their administration to undertake such a disastrous campaign after all that it has done over the past seven years? Especially when Iraq and Afghanistan, the two other fronts in America’s war, are still burning.

Is there no one who can stop Bush from visiting this madness on us all?

(Aijaz Zaka Syed writes a weekly column on the Middle East and Muslim world affairs in Khaleej Times published from Dubai. He can be reached at

View from Dubai: Why the West must engage Islamists

April 6, 2007


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Three developments in the Middle East test America’s claim to be championing democracy in the Muslim world: The elections this month in Lebanon, the postponed parliamentary polls in the Palestinian territories and the upcoming presidential election in Egypt.How the United States chooses to respond to these democratic processes in the Arab-Muslim heartland may determine the future of America’s relationship with the Muslim world.When President George W. Bush vowed in his second inauguration speech to break with the traditional U.S. policy of backing authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world, he may have heralded a new era. Bush promised to support genuine democratic movements in the Middle East and elsewhere even if it meant dumping America’s traditional friends and allies. Since then, Bush has repeatedly argued, rightly, that it is the suppression of democratic urges and rights that is at the heart of Muslim extremism.

Democracy may indeed be the cure-all for most problems confronting the Muslim world. But the question is, can the United States take the bold steps that are needed to give concrete shape to its promises? Can it allow democracy to take its natural course in the Muslim world, given that across the region, from Lebanon to Egypt, Islamists are emerging as a political force the West can no longer ignore?

Promotion of democracy in Muslim countries is likely to see the empowerment of those predominant political players who turn to Islam for inspiration and guidance in public life.

Earlier this month, Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite resistance movement that Washington condemns as a terrorist group, swept the elections in southern Lebanon. In the Palestinian territories, Mahmoud Abbas had to postpone parliamentary elections scheduled for next month when his Fatah party – Palestinians’ sole political representative for half a century – realized to its horror that the Islamists of Hamas are set to dislodge it from power.

In Egypt, the corrupt and repressive regime of President Hosni Mubarak, under pressure from Washington to hold free and fair elections, has turned its ire on the Muslim Brotherhood. This powerful Islamist organization, with a massive support base in Egypt and elsewhere in Arab world, has been excluded from the elections in September for fear that it could wrest power from Mubarak.

If Bush were serious in his commitment to democracy, he would tell his “friends” in the Middle East to allow truly free and fair polls, even if that means Islamists coming to power.

As Islamists move to center stage in many parts of the Arab world, it’s time that the United States and the rest of the Western world accepted the idea of dealing with them as legitimate representatives of the people.

In the past half century, the West has sided with tyrants as they victimized the Islamists. In Egypt, grave human rights abuses by successive regimes have been ignored by the West. In Algeria, the military prevented the Islamic Salvation Front from taking office after it swept the 1991 parliamentary elections – with the blessing of the West, which saw the rise of Islamists as a threat to its interests. The consequence was a decade-long civil war.

As democracy has been mocked elsewhere in the Islamic world, the West has consistently looked the other way. No wonder many Muslims blame the West for the suffering inflicted by their dictators. Yet Western leaders appear surprised when Al Qaeda extremists attack Western targets.

Washington’s stance that Islamist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorist organizations is out of sync with new realities of the region. Terrorists do not take part in elections and political processes, as Hamas and Hezbollah are doing. And the Muslim Brotherhood is the most popular grass-roots organization in the Arab world.

If Bush wants to usher in a new era of democracy and peace in the Muslim world, he should be prepared to deal with Muslims’ genuine and legitimate representatives. He would do well to recognize the fact that Islamists are emerging as the leading political players in the Middle East and engage them as such.

(Aijaz Zaka Syed is the opinion page editor of The Khaleej Times in Dubai.)

View from Dubai: Time to look East

March 30, 2007

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

WASN’T it the British politician, Benjamin Disraeli, who argued that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in the world of diplomacy, only permanent interests? The late British prime minister should know. For there is no other nation that has practised the mantra with greater success and panache than the British.

Watching Saudi Arabia roll out the red carpet for President Putin of Russia last week, I was reminded of England’s first Jewish prime minister and his earthy wisdom. King Abdullah canonised the former KGB chief and martial art expert as a ‘man of peace and justice.’ Nothing wrong with that, of course. Except Saudi Arabia happens to be a staunch ally of the United States and this is the first ever visit by a Russian leader to the home of Islam.

Saudi Arabia refused to have diplomatic relations with Russia or the late Soviet Union for its treatment of the large Muslim population in the country and neighbouring Central Asian republics. It was not long ago that Saudi Arabia had supported and encouraged the decade-long resistance against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Without doubt, the Afghan jihad, actively supported by both Saudi Arabia and America, played a critical role in bringing down the Soviet empire. But things are changing now. And how.

Clearly both Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the world’s largest oil producing nations, are in a hurry to make up for the last time. So it was no coincidence that just ahead of his visit to the Middle East, Putin unveiled a blistering attack on the US leadership accusing it of inflaming the Middle East and undermining world peace with its clumsy handling of Iraq. Don’t be surprised if Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Arab-Muslim world and oil producing nations, today is seeking defence cooperation with Russia. Moscow will also launch six telecommunication and remote sensing satellites for Saudi Arabia later this year. But what really takes the cake in this budding relationship is Putin’s offer to help Saudi Arabia develop nuclear energy. What is going on? The world is changing folks. That’s what is going on. And about time too. The Arab and Muslim world has depended for far too long on its traditional allies in the West. And what has it got in return? Only contempt and wanton indifference to their concerns and problems.

In fact, most of those concerns and problems are a legacy of our Western friends who through their long association with and colonisation of the Middle East have transformed the cradle of the world civilisation into the battleground of big powers. I hate going on and on about the Palestinian dispossession and how it makes the Middle East and greater Muslim world politically and psychologically volatile. It’s an undeniable reality though that the continuing suffering of Palestinian people remains the single source of Muslim anger and growing extremism around the world. The Arabs and Muslims find it hard to ignore the fact that colonial powers played a decisive role in driving the Palestinians out of their homeland to gift it to the Jews, a people historically persecuted across the Christian Europe.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shockingly politically incorrect as he may sound, has really got a point when he demands to know why should the Palestinians and Muslim world pay for the wrongs committed by the West.It’s hardly a state secret how the victors of the World War I and II divided the greater Middle East among themselves over the last century. Winston Churchill of Britain is said to have drawn up the map of the new Middle East on a breakfast napkin at the Yalta summit of 1945 with FD Roosevelt of United States and Joseph Stalin of Soviet Union. The Arab and Muslim world continues to pay a daily price for that mutilation at the crossroads of history on a daily basis. From the ever-festering Palestine-Israel conflict to Lebanon civil war to the current mess in Iraq, which one of our problems is not the legacy of the big powers?

The Arab and Muslims have got nothing but condescension and derision from the West for their genuine friendship and fawning admiration. The least the Arabs could have got was a note of acknowledgment, if not gratitude, for the critical role their oil has played in the West’s —indeed the world’s —economic progress and development. Instead all they’ve got is relentless exploitation and old- fashioned conspiracies.In fact, it was this mindset that originally forced the Saudis and Iranians to sever their economic ties with the manipulative British in the beginning of the last century and reach out to the new world power, America, in the first place. The two oil producing neighbours had got sick and tired of sheer dishonesty and the games played by British oil companies in their dealings with the simple and uninitiated leaders of the two countries. Unfortunately, the Arabs’ experience with Uncle Sam despite their uninhibited admiration for all that America stands for —or once did —has been equally disappointing. The Arab regimes’ political, emotional and strategic dependence on the US over the past half a century or so has only made this relationship all the more complex and frustrating. This has encouraged and emboldened the US to take its Arab allies for granted while constantly appeasing their bete noire Israel.Which is why the Arab and Muslim world needs to make some bold and strategic decisions and choices, and soon, to introduce a much-needed equilibrium in their relationship with the world powers. The Middle East has to gradually and decisively curtail its hopeless dependence on the West in general and US in particular. This is in their mutual interest and necessary for the long-term health of their relationship. The world is undergoing dramatic changes. And as our friend Tom Friedman of the New York Times insists, it is not a flat world anymore. It will not forever remain a US-controlled and West-dominated world. The new Russia under comrade Putin with its new money to splurge has not only got its old, superpower confidence back, but it is keen to play a more assertive role on the world stage. On the other hand, the emergence of new Asian players like China and India with their incredibly-fast booming economies and rich human resources has forced the whole world to sit up and take notice.

The Arab and Muslim world would ignore these historic changes at its own cost. It has to break free of its American and Western fixation. The Arab countries must not only diversify their economies from oil and gas but also reach out to new and more dependable allies and friends in nations such as Russia, China and India. It is time to look East. Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries have already taken some tentative steps in this direction.

King Abdullah’s very first foreign visit after taking over as the leader of the world’s largest oil producing nation took him to China and India last year. Saudi Arabia has already clinched some major energy cooperation deals with China and is planning to build a major storage-refinery facility in the country. This is encouraging. But as the leader of the Arab-Islamic world, Saudi Arabia will have to do more to make its foreign policy less US-centric. And others in the neighbourhood must follow suit. They must evolve a foreign policy that is more nuanced and balanced, in tune with the phenomenal changes that are taking place around them. This is the least they can do to salvage their dignity and independence. Never again must the Arabs and Muslims put all their eggs in one basket. That’s not good diplomacy. And it’s risky too. They must do everything possible to cut their dependence on big players altogether and look inwards for solutions to their problems. The Makkah peace summit of the last week that brought peace to the Palestinian Territories —and the Taif peace accord before that, in 1989, put an end to the civil war in Lebanon —have demonstrated that the Arabs and Muslims are capable of solving their own problems. They only have to try.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at

View from Dubai: The Kashmir Knot

March 30, 2007

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

YOU know the world has changed to apocalyptic proportions when you have India and Pakistan agreeing on something. The tragedy that hit cross-border Samjhauta Express, run between India and Pakistan, this week of course was a desperate and cowardly act of terror.

Innocent people have once again paid with their lives as they got caught in a conflict that had nothing to do with them. However, if there is a silver lining to this appalling tragedy, it is the neighbours’ unity in the face of the common challenge confronting them. For a change, the South Asian neighbours have not blamed each other for the attack but have come together to take on the spectre that threatens them both. Not a small feat for the sub-continent twins who for over six decades have lived in a permanent state of conflict with occasional bursts of peace and good-neighbourly bonhomie.This is heartening for the millions of ordinary people like me who would like India and Pakistan to strike genuine peace and bring down the wall of distrust built by a conspiracy of history and geography. It’s this divide that doesn’t allow the two countries and their billion plus population to realise their infinite potential.

And it’s this unfinished business of their shared past that keeps coming back to haunt India and Pakistan from time to time — just as it has done in the terrible attack on Samjhauta Express. Seeing the two entire compartments with their passengers reduced to a charred nothingness and their wailing and devastated survivors, you wonder what the terrorists have after all achieved by all this. All they have managed to do is score another, if rather fine point, over their respective enemies. And they have driven home the message that this is what happens if you do not engage us and pay attention to our demands. For now, it is not clear who did it though. The usual suspects are Kashmiri groups.

But since most of those killed in the Samjhauta tragedy happen to be Pakistani families returning home, theories are also doing the rounds about some shadowy Hindu groups being behind the attack. It’s been pointed out that as in Malegaon blasts in Maharashtra last year, the majority of the victims in this attack happen to be Muslim. But does it really matter who targeted who and whether those at the receiving end were Muslims or Hindus, Christians or Jews? All victims are innocent — unless they are directly responsible and paying for the injustice and suffering they have caused others. So if the utterly helpless and persecuted Palestinians blow themselves up in Jewish settlements built on the land usurped and snatched from them, you understand — if not justify — the desperate action. You don’t have to be a suicide bomber to know how it feels when your home has been taken over by a thug armed to the teeth and then you and your loved ones are abused daily in front of the whole world. Yes, you do understand the infinite helplessness that drives young boys and girls hardly in their teens over the edge. But, how could you explain the targeting of innocents and young children who didn’t even know why they had to die a painful death on that ill-fated train to Pakistan? It was heart-rending to watch parents recount how they saw their children burn to death and could do nothing. Again, how would anyone justify the mindless bombing of the local train network in Mumbai last year that ended the lives of 174 people going to work? Indeed, all those who died in 9/11 or 7/7 terror attacks, or for that matter most terror victims, had nothing to do with the conflicts or issues that ostensibly drove their tormentors. Yet they ended up paying with their lives for the sins and crimes they had never committed. It is so unfair and unreasonable. But then logic and reason cannot always explain the complexities of geopolitics. But wait. Don’t we really know why those innocents on the train to Pakistan had to die? Utterly despicable and deplorable as this act of terror had been, it is not difficult to identify the factors that made this outrage possible and motives of those behind it. I know I am not being entirely ingenious in saying this. But as is the case in all spheres of life, the cause and effect go together in the world of terror too. And when you talk of cause and effect, you cannot ignore the historical reality that the self-serving politicians of India and Pakistan have allowed the Kashmir question, the so-called unfinished business of the Partition, hang fire for so long — for nearly six decades. The Kashmir conflict has not only poisoned the close relationship between the South Asian neighbours but has also prevented the two countries and their people from moving on and progress with the rest of the world. India and Pakistan, despite their impressive growth in recent times, are home to some of the world’s poorest and economically deprived communities.

While the South Asian giants love to strut their stuff and their powerful arsenal including nuclear weapons, a vast majority of their people remain without access to basics such as housing, clean water, electricity, health and education. India has higher levels of malnourished children than Sub-Saharan Africa, a Unicef report this week said. Imagine what a critical difference all those resources — in trillions of dollars — spent on financing the South Asian delusions of military grandeur can make to their people. But the real victims of the India-Pakistan conflict have been the Kashmiri people. They have already paid an incalculable price for owning one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. Impossibly caught in the battle of nerves and egos of the sub-continent giants, the Kashmiris are forever hanging in a political and psychological limbo, like those condemned souls in Dante’s Purgatory, eternally waiting for their deliverance.Unfortunately, both India and Pakistan have been far from reasonable and fair in dealing with Kashmiri people and their legitimate concerns and aspirations. Pakistan has over the years successfully used and exploited the Kashmir question. While the Pak establishment claims to espouse the cause of Kashmiri people, it has indeed been more interested in serving its own interests and scoring diplomatic brownie points over India. If you don’t know what I am talking about, just look at the pathetic state of affairs in Pakistani Kashmir. The so-called Azad Kashmir is as poor and underdeveloped as its Indian counterpart, if not more. On the other hand, the Indian establishment goes on defensive the instant the K word is uttered, shutting out all discussion and dialogue on the issue. It is not prepared to acknowledge or accept the suggestion that there may be trouble in the paradise. As an Indian, I do understand why we are all so touchy about Kashmir and continue to tiptoe around the issue. After all, Kashmir has been the much-celebrated jewel in India’s crown. But how long Kashmiris have to suffer and sacrifice themselves at the altar of vain pride and patriotism? The South Asian neighbours’ inability or unwillingness to resolve the Kashmir tangle and address the genuine aspirations and concerns of Kashmiri people has already taken the region to three disastrous wars. The Kashmiris remain imprisoned and separated from their loved ones in their own land. South Asia’s Berlin wall, the so-called Line of Control, has literally divided thousands of Kashmiri families on either side of the geographical divide. If you’ve ever been to Jammu and Kashmir like I have been, you would see what I mean. The breathtakingly beautiful state has been turned into a large military camp with most of India’s forces being stationed in Jammu and Kashmir. Nearly a hundred thousand people have died over the past decade and half in the insurgency that has been actively supported by Pakistan. Hundreds more have died in staged encounters, as in the case of Abdul Rehman Paddar, a carpenter and father of five from Anantnag who was shot dead as a ‘foreign militant’ by a fellow Kashmiri cop in a hurry to scale the carrier ladder. Is it any wonder then the Kashmiri youths continue to take to extremism? And is it any surprise if terror continues to stalk the India-Pakistan ties? Genuine peace and progress will elude the sub-continent as long as Kashmir remains without peace. India and Pakistan have to confront their past to look to their future. And that is not possible without talking the K word — with complete honesty and without beating about the bush.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at

View from Dubai: Here’s why they love and hate US

March 30, 2007

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

A QUESTION in response to a question can often be the answer. This is what I realised when Major-General William B. Caldwell, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Effects and spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq, visited the Khaleej Times earlier this week with a team of high ranking US officials.

The US officials were ostensibly on a mission to win the ‘hearts and minds’ in the Middle East and Muslim world by reaching out to the media and telling their side of the story. When asked what the US proposed to do to reach out to the alienated Arab and Muslim world, Major-General Caldwell in turn asked me what I thought the US should do to win over the Muslims.

I mumbled something to the effect the US should bridge the gulf by initiating a genuinely free and frank dialogue with the Islamic world addressing each other’s concerns. Caldwell agreed with me pointing out that his very inability to answer my question underscored the seriousness of the problem. A great deal has been said and written about the yawning gulf that exists between the West, especially the US and Muslim world. It’s hardly a secret that while the ruling classes in the Muslim world revel in their proximity to the US, the same cannot be said of the majority of ordinary people. In fact, of late the commotion in Muslim street over America’s far from popular policies in the Middle East has grown alarmingly. Yet our American friends appear genuinely surprised every time there is a pointed expression of anger against the US policies and actions. They ask themselves: “Why do they hate us?” But is it that hard to figure why the world’s 1.8 billion Arabs and Muslim have some serious issues with the reigning superpower that has invaded and occupied at least two Muslim countries and could be planning to attack on a third? It’s not only America’s unquestioning support to the apartheid state of Israel and its persecution of the Palestinians that agitates the Muslim world. The superpower’s historical political and economic exploitation of the Middle East and its attempts to redraw the map of the region after the World War II have been at the heart of this alienation. A recent survey by the University of Maryland and Zogby International found that 78 per cent of Arabs have an unfavourable view of the US. At least 72 per cent of them see the US as the biggest ‘state threat.’ Another poll in 40 Muslim countries by Gallup’s Centre for Muslim Studies reveals that 52 per cent of Iranians have an unfavourable view of the Big Satan. That’s hardly a surprise, given the US-Iran conflict. But this antipathy towards Uncle Sam is significantly lower than that recorded in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — all three close US allies. Two third of Jordanians and Pakistanis and a staggering 79 per cent of Saudis have a negative view of their so-called friend and ally. But remember, this disillusionment with the Americans is not limited to the Muslim world. Anti-Americanism as a movement in Europe and around the world has survived the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold war. Way back in 1993, a State Department study found that a whopping 83 per cent of the British had a favourable opinion of their cousins across the Atlantic. This support has drastically dwindled in recent times. Most Britons, polled by Pew Global Attitudes Project, today see the US presence in the Middle East and its ‘war on terror’ as a bigger threat to world peace than Iran or North Korea! It should be a real source of concern to the Americans that this view is widely shared by respondents in France, Spain, Russia, India, China and throughout the Middle East. Clearly, what unites the world today is hatred of America the Almighty. But like I said, should these findings really come as a surprise to the Americans? Remarkably, few of them seem to realise that it is the casually callous policies — especially, foreign policy — of their successive governments that make them the world’s most despised nation. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. According to the same Gallup poll that I’ve cited above, most Arabs and Muslims also admire America for many of its positive qualities and features. For example, an overwhelming majority of Muslims admires American technology, its democracy and political freedom among many other things. According to this poll, all Muslims want is ‘more respect’ from America! Clearly, it is a complex, love-hate relationship. From my own personal experience as a Muslim who grew up admiring all things American, I understand how my fellow believers the world over feel about America. My introduction to America began early in life with westerns and thrillers by lovable writers such as Oliver Strange and James Hadley Chase, who rubbed shoulders with the best in Urdu classics in my father’s library, back home in India. This adolescent affair with America developed into a heady passion when I went to university. And it was my fawning fascination for Amriika — as we call it back home — that made me choose American literature as an elective in MA English. I never regretted that decision — to be in the enriching company of Frost, Whitman, Hemingway and many others. Over the years, this bond with America has only strengthened with my philistine fondness for Hollywood and exposure to US democracy and civil liberties icons. Like fellow Muslims everywhere, I still love and admire America and all that it stands for and represents — or once did. I admire its democratic values, its love of liberty and personal freedom and respect for the rule of law and human rights — notwithstanding Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. But what really makes the American way of life so attractive to us Muslims — from the edge of Africa to the end of Asia — is its celebration of honesty, fair play and hard work. If you are confident, hard working and enterprising, American dream can embrace you as its own. Which is why the rags-to-riches stories are so common in the New World. And this is why it remains the favourite destination of dream chasers everywhere. From actor-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sabeer Bhatia of Hotmail, in our own lifetime there have been numerous examples of immigrants scaling dizzying heights to become a part of the great American dream. It’s this side of America that conquers hearts and minds everywhere — in the Muslim world and elsewhere. Indeed, there is a great deal that the Muslims have in common with America. We share an unshakable faith in God, justice, honesty, freedom and humanity.It is such a shame then that such a huge gulf between the US and the Muslims and between the West and Islam should exist. How do we bridge this divide? The only way to end the rift is by trying to understand what has caused this in the first place. If the Americans — the US establishment, to be more precise — are indeed keen to bridge the divide preventing the coming clash of civilistions, they must start by showing some respect to Arabs and Muslims. It’s only when you respect the other side that you pay attention to their point of view. Bush is wrong to suggest Muslims hate America and the West because we abhor their ‘way of life.’ We do not hate America or grudge Western way of life. It’s your life after all and you have the right to live it the way you want. As the Quran puts it, “To you be your Way, And to me mine.” The trouble starts only when you try to force your way upon ours. Also, ordinary Muslims like me find it hard to accept that a nation that inspired by the ideals of freedom, democracy, dignity and justice can support a state that is rooted in injustice, oppression and tyranny.

This gulf between the US and Islam is not impossible to bridge, if the US establishment makes a sincere attempt to understand what really concerns and agitates the Muslims. And I assure my American friends — including well-meaning individuals like Major-General Caldwell — that it’s not that difficult to figure what makes Muslims unhappy with America. Identify and eliminate those causes and Islam and America can join hands to create a better and more peaceful world.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at