Reality, realpolitik and religion

Religious, political and ideological identities are façades which people, parties and nations wear only as long as their core interests do not dictate otherwise. But when vital interests clash, friendships, coalitions and alliances go out the door and the protagonists rearrange their relationships in light of changed circumstances.

 (Daily Times, 18 January 2014)

Consider two separate events of the last few weeks in two countries that couldn’t be more different, situated on two continents, separated not only by geography but also by race, religion, history, ethnicity and culture. In the African state of South Sudan, there is a virtual civil war, pitting Christian against Christian.  The bloodshed is the result of a power struggle in the world’s youngest country between the president and his former vice-president, exploiting tribal differences between the Dinka and the Nuer people.

Almost a world away, in Iraq in the Middle East, it is Muslim against Muslim.  The predominantly Shia government there is battling to regain control of Anbar province from armed Sunni tribesmen.

While many observers, especially Islamophobes, will easily interpret the violence in Iraq as a product of the Sunni-Shia schism, they will be hard put to explain the violence in South Sudan between erstwhile liberation fighters, all Christian, who until recently jointly struggled against Muslim rule from Khartoum.

And it gets a bit more complicated. The President of Arab-Muslim Sudan has flown from Khartoum to the South Sudanese capital of Juba to extend full support to his former enemy, Christian President Salva Kiir of the break-away state of South Sudan, in his war against the insurgents led by Kiir’s compatriot and fellow Christian Riek Machar.

Let me add a bit more, at the risk of confusing you further. The US government has pledged military and political support to the Shia government of President Nouri Al Maliki in Iraq.  Maliki makes no secret of his friendship with Iran and has allowed his country to be used as a conduit for Iranian military support to its ally in Syria, the Alawaite-Shia government of President Bashar al-Assad. 

Be it noted that regime change in Syria has been Washington’s goal, to achieve which it has supported the Sunni Free Syrian Army battling Bashar’s powerful armed forces. Iranian material support to Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah, avowed enemy of Israel, is also channeled through the Baghdad regime, which is also the recipient of massive military hardware from Washington, including F-16s.

In other words, the US supports Sunni against Shia in Syria and Lebanon, and Shia against Sunni in Iraq. Christian President Kiir of South Sudan welcomes in his capital the president of Muslim Sudan as he battles the forces led by his own Christian ex-vice president Machar.  While the US role in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will provide grist to the mill of those conspiracy-theorists who see an American hand in every trouble, even they will he baffled by the events in South Sudan.

But this is neither new nor surprising.  If politics makes strange bedfellows – consider Imran Khan’s alliance with Pakistan’s Islamists – so does international politics. Whereas in domestic politics this is disparagingly called political opportunism, in international politics it has been given a respectable name: realpolitik. 

Both are essentially the same, and perfectly understandable, though Imran Khan’s hobnobbing with Islamists defies my understanding. We have come to expect anything from Altaf Bhai, but from Imran Khan we expected better.  However, to give credit where it is due, MQM has been steadfast in its secularism and opposition to the Islamists.

Now back to realpolitik and political opportunism.  That alliances and coalitions form and break both nationally and internationally is only natural, for all parties and governments are determined to pursue what they perceive to be in their best interests. Call it what you will, power politics, power struggle, political expediency, balance of power, national interest, party interest, whatever, but such is reality.

In the Second World War, the US was allied with the Soviet Union and dropped the A-bomb on Japan.  During the Cold War, it was allied with Japan against the Soviet Union.  Then, the US was allied with China in the war against Japan.  Now, Washington is supportive of Japan in its growing conflict with China. Beijing is now increasingly drawing support from Moscow.  In 1969, China and Russia fought a border war.

Closer to home, Muslim Bangladeshis fought Muslim Pakistan (both overwhelmingly Sunni) with the military support of Hindu-majority India.  Sunni Afghanistan, whether ruled by king, communist or Karzai, always has had good relations with India but strained relations with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

And who, besides Israel, wants Iran to be bombed by the US?  Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.  And why?  No, not because of the Shia-Sunni schism, but rather because, since 1979, a republican, “revolutionary” Iran poses an ideological threat to the Saudi and other absolute monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf.

And, yes, one more fact.  The Saudi Government is supporting the Egyptian military’s violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been their religious soul-mates for decades.  Not just with words, but with billions of dollars to bail out its faltering economy. Why, one wonders?  To isolate Turkey, also ruled by a lighter version of the Brotherhood.  The bilateral struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the leadership of the Muslim world has now expanded into a triangular one, also involving Turkey.

Religious, political and ideological identities are façades which people, parties and nations wear only as long as their core interests do not dictate otherwise. But when vital interests clash, friendships, coalitions and alliances go out the door and the protagonists rearrange their relationships in light of changed circumstances.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, neither race, nor religion, nor sect, nor ethnicity, nor ideology is allowed to stand in the way.

Speaking of the much-propagated Sunni-Shia antagonism, which is blamed for the incessant violence in Iraq, does anyone ever wonder why the Iraqi Kurds, who are Sunnis, are allied and at peace with the Shia-led government in Baghdad? The schism in Iraq is territorial and historical, but also economic, because Iraq’s oil is found in the Shia south and Kurdish north. It is a similar pattern in both Syria and Lebanon, with Alawites, Druze and Christians thrown in for good measure.

British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said that “a week is a long time in politics”.  And over a century before him another British prime minister, Lord Palmerstone, had remarked that his country had no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, only interests that were eternal and perpetual, a remark that Liaquat Ali Khan repeated as the first prime minister of Pakistan.

 by Razi Azmi

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1 Response to Reality, realpolitik and religion

  1. Khurram says:

    As always, very powerful article and it makes me think and gives a better understanding, how international politics works, it is not about religion or ethnicity but its all about interest. I don’t think any other writer can described it better than this.

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