Sunday, October 19, 2003

The Great Game

Ralph Peters, writing one of his last articles for US War College's journal, Parameters, characterized the September 11 attack as a final attempt by the Arabs to retain control over an Islam that had escaped its bounds. He pointed out that the bulk of Muslims lived outside of Arabia: in Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and in Malay archipelago. In a brilliant essay, Peters said:

Our focus on the Middle East has been so exclusive that we have come to see Islam largely through an Arab prism. But the Islam of the Middle East is as fixed, as unreflective, and ultimately as brittle as concrete. We have forgotten that Islam is the youngest of the world’s great religions, that it is still very much a work-in-progress on its vast frontiers, and that its forms are at least as various as the myriad confessions and sects of Christendom.

... Religions change, because men change them. Fundamentalists insist upon an ahistorical stasis, but evolution in the architecture of faith has always been essential to, and reflective of, human progress. ... On its frontiers, Islam remains capable of the changes necessary to make it, once again, a healthy, luminous faith ... But the hard men from that religion’s ancient homelands are determined to frustrate every exploratory effort they can. The Muslim extremist diaspora from the Middle East has one consistent message: Return to the past, for that is what God wants.

But for men like Osama Bin Laden to succeed, the non-Arabian Muslims must heed the call. Otherwise, the Islamic fundamentalist enterprise is doomed to fail. The world’s most populous “Muslim” countries stretch far to the east of the Indus River: Indonesia, India, Bangladesh . . . Pakistan . . . and other regional states, such as Malaysia, make this the real cockpit of crisis.

It is in this context that US geopolitical strategy is best understood. President George Bush is now completing a six-country tour of the Western Pacific, touching on Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia. In that group, Thailand, Singapore and Australia represent the hard core of new coalition ringing the Malay Archipelago, with the Philippines the weak and junior partner. His penultimate stop will be Indonesia -- the vast hinterland of Islam, in Peter's analysis -- before concluding his sojourn in Australia, whose massive bulk forms the westernmost anchor of the enterprise. But it is the Bush meeting with Chinese premier at the APEC meeting in Bangkok that may prove most interesting. Here the subject may shift to Central Asia, the great region of the Islamic 'stans, and China's concern there.

Traditionally, China has watched its western marches closely for signs of Islamic unrest. Across the Indus were the Czars, and their late heirs, the Soviet Commissars. But lately a new player has arrived on the scene: the United States. The sudden descent of the United States on Afghanistan and its presence in the neighboring ex-Soviet countries has awakened China to a new power across the Indus. It has reacted by adopting measures to strengthen it's hand in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, not just diplomatically, but with the intention of creating a new free trade zone there. For the first time since the long-gone days of the Raj, three major powers are met in depths of Central Asia, in the land of the 'stans: Russia, China and the United States. The parallels with the Raj are nearly exact because the United States, apart from its presence in Pakistan, has established a new diplomatic closeness with India. Pakistan, with its teeming Muslim millions, and India with greater numbers still, whose "more than 15 percent of its billion people are Muslims, outnumbering the Islamic population of Pakistan", in Ralph Peter's perceptive analysis.

This then, is the position. America has occupied Iraq, between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran; it occupies Afghanistan, between Iran and the 'stans of Central Asia. It is strongly posted on the Indian subcontinent. It is constructing a coalition in the Western Pacific composed of countries which would be in mortal peril should militant Islam gain a hold in the Malay Archipelago. It has drawn in Russia and China into the Central Asian arena, where a new Great Game would perforce create a three power oversight over the Islamic nations there. Whoever tries to create an Islamic state anywhere will find enemies ready-made. This is geopolitical quartering at the highest level, but it has one ultimate psychological goal: to develop an ummah that is physically and well as mentally free of the desert sands. America understands that this is Arabia's last call, and its response has been to invite Muslims elsewhere to take their own counsel and gaze, for the first time, at the land upon which they stand.