Tuesday, 22 March 2011

So why DO we keep bombing Muslim countries?

Once again, Western countries are making war on (or, to be more precise, in) an Islamic country. First Iraq, then Somalia, then Afghanistan, then Iraq again, now Libya. And that's just since 1990. There was also the peace-keeping operation in Bosnia (which has a large Muslim population) in the early 1990s, with a follow-up attack on Serbia, ostensibly to protect the ethnically Albanian Kosovans, whose religion, once again, is Islam. And that's to say nothing of the constant, less formal but still enormous engagement of Western forces in places such as Pakistan and the Arabian peninsula. Whenever Western countries go to war, these days, most of the time the country they go to war in or with is Muslim.

Don't worry. I'm not turning into Osama Bin Laden, or one of the Islamist rentaquotes who pop up on the 24 hour news channels to denounce whatever it is the US and its allies are doing in the Middle East. But it's interesting - is it not? - that of all the countries of the world facing civil strife, where there is oppression, where doddery or thuggish dictatorships hold sway, American and European policy-makers seem only interested in the Muslim ones.

Zimbabwe? Sorry, Mugabe's a bastard but he's a Catholic bastard. Burma? What are they, Buddhist or something? Sorry, not interested. And sod, quite frankly, Tibet. Yes, I appreciate that no-one wants to tangle with the Chinese - but if the Dalai Lama were Sheikh D'al-Aylahma you can be sure the problem would be higher up the Western world's policy agenda. As for North Korea, that ticks all the boxes: totalitarian regime, loopy dictator, a full-on nuclear weapons programme, threats towards neighbours, even occasional acts of war. Everyone shrugs. North Korea might regularly appear near the top of lists of conflicts about to happen. But the war never quite starts.

It can't just be oil. Kosovo had no oil, and Libya's oil was flowing perfectly freely under the ruthless and weird, but ultimately pragmatic, Gaddafi. Terrorism is another generally assumed explanation for Western interest in what is lumped together as "the Islamic world". But, Donald Rumsfeld's wilder fantasies aside, there was no terrorist problem in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, while the vast majority of Libyan jihadists dwell in the heroic East of the country and hate Gaddafi's guts. He was, until this blew up, our ally. It's not evil Western colonialism, either - most of the time, these interventions are in large measure humanitarian or liberal in spirit, if not in result. So what is the factor X?

Not, I think, anything intrinsic in Islam itself. There is, of course, an expansionist strain in the religion that historically has regularly caused problems for the rest of the world. But this tendency has not predominated in all the Muslim countries in which the West has intervened during the past few decades, or even in most of them. And to adduce Islam as an explanation is in any event to consider the question backwards: for what puzzles me is not that newsworthy events happen in Muslim countries, but why newsworthy events in Muslim majority countries regularly trigger Western military intervention, while equally newsworthy events in other countries prompt, at most, hand-wringing and platitudinous expressions of sympathy. The answer cannot be a fact about Islam; it can only be a fact about ourselves.

A clue, perhaps - or at least a parallel case - lies in the Western media and political classes' ongoing obsession with Israel, the Palestinians, the "peace process" and all the whole interminable soap-opera. The relationship between the Jewish state and the inhabitants of the occupied territories is important to those who happen to live there, but scarcely matters to anyone else. It's an endless, unedifying property dispute which is as parochial as Northern Ireland or the Basque country. In a balanced world, it would be well down the diplomatic agenda. Instead, it is generally believed to be one of the most important questions of our age, the solution of which would hold the key to the peace of the entire region, if not the world. As if. Why is this minor problem given such undeserved prominence?

It might be that the creation of Israel was an event that had relevance to many in Europe and, especially, the United States; that the so-called Israel Lobby has helped maintain American interest and involvement; and that as a result anything to do with Israel is automatically "news". But what of the many Korean Americans? And there are no such special factors at play in Libya. I suggest the true answer lies much deeper and is rooted in primordial European fears: of the Muslim advance that was checked at Tours, of Turks at the gates of Vienna. It's not fear of Islam per se. Rather, it's a hard-to-shake-off sense that anything involving Muslims is somehow more pressing, more pregnant with potential trouble, or just somehow more important.

For reasons they do not fully grasp, Western journalists and policy-makers (one not leading the other - both groups think the same way) get excited when an event occurs somewhere in the world that has some Islamic dimension. Their interest is piqued, their pulses race faster, they start imagining hideous possibilities, they quickly become convinced that they should Do Something. And it's not long until the bombs start dropping. It's very strange.