The pro-Islamist West versus anti-Islamist Russia, China?

There are numerous economic and strategic interests at play when it comes to assessing the policies of Western nations, Russia and China.

August 1, 2012 23:26
Free Syrian Army members in al-Rasten, near Homs

Free Syrian Army members in al-Rasten, near Homs 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In the present regional upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, how could one characterize the responses of Western countries on the one hand, and those of Russia and China on the other? Are there any ideological stances we can discern in their policies? One answer came from Daniel Pipes, who in a blog post for National Review Online, argued: “Whereas the European Union and the US government are increasingly sympathetic to Islamism, in part as a way to tame their own Muslim populations, Moscow and Beijing have a history of open conflict with their Muslim populations and therefore adopt policies more hostile to Islamism in the Middle East.”

Pipes raises an important topic for discussion, but how valid is the thesis? One particularly important case to note here is that of France and Tunisia.

France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, most of whom are of North African descent. Yet the French government was eager to see Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali – the pro-Western president who was subsequently toppled in the protests against his rule that sparked off the Arab Spring – keep hold of power, approving the sale of tear gas grenades to Tunisia just two days before Ben Ali was ousted.

Due to the outrage triggered in Tunisia by France’s initial stance on the uprising, the French government later regretted its failure to distance itself from Ben Ali earlier on, yet it is also clear that France’s willingness to maintain friendly ties with Tunisia will only persist as long as Ennahda – the Islamist party that won a plurality of seats in the Tunisian elections – sticks to its pledge not to implement Shari’a law in Tunisia.

MEANWHILE, IN an effort to mend relations between Tunisia and France, the secular President Moncef Marzouki, whose center-left “Congress for the Republic” is currently in a coalition government with Ennahda, recently visited France and felt a need to reassure the French parliament that Tunisia has not “fallen into the hands of Islamism.”

It is in light of the embarrassment suffered by France during the protests against Ben Ali in Tunisia that we can partly understand Paris’ subsequent enthusiasm for military intervention against Gaddafi during the Libyan civil war, and not a shift in stance towards greater sympathy for Islamism; whereas Germany, which also has a substantial Muslim population, opted for a policy of cautious neutrality.

In the case of Libya, other interests that were under consideration included a perceived need to prevent a massacre in Benghazi and the idea that Gaddafi’s regime could be taken out without having to put troops on the ground. The UK spearheaded the intervention against Gaddafi with France, while the United States only joined reluctantly and never took a leading role.

But British and American policy towards Bahrain further tells against the generalization of increasing Western government sympathy for Islamism.The UK and US have called for dialogue between the pro-Western, Sunni monarchy and the primarily Shi’a opposition, but the fact is that both nations are deeply concerned about Iranian designs on the island that is home to the Fifth Fleet, whose presence is considered vital to maintaining the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and preventing Iran from becoming the dominant power in the area.

This concern naturally entails anxieties about the existence of pro-Iranian Islamists in the opposition like Hassan Mushaima and al-Haq, who have denounced the more moderate al-Wefaq for not seeking to overthrow the monarchy or implement the Khomeinist principle of wilayat-e-faqih, that is a cornerstone of Iran’s system of government.

Thus, British security firms have assisted Bahrain in its crackdown on protestors; the UK government has refused to repudiate the Bahraini regime (with an invitation for the monarch to the Diamond Jubilee); and the Obama administration has continued to approve arms sales to Bahrain, with opposition coming from only a handful of members of Congress.

WHAT IS clear is that inconsistency characterizes Western policies towards the region, rather than a pro-Islamist stance. The same can be said of Russia and China.

For example, on the issue of the nuclear program of Iran (the leading revolutionary Islamist power in the Middle East), David Patrikarakos, a British analyst, aptly summarized the Russian and Chinese approach: “Iran has used its relationship with these two countries very skillfully, and both have protected the country in the Security Council. China has strong financial links with Iran and Russia is its nuclear partner... so while they have come ‘on side’ to some extent, having voted in favor of the UN Security Council sanctions, both countries have also watered down those sanctions resolutions... This is why the US has increasingly sought to pass unilateral sanctions against Iran outside of the Security Council and pressured its allies to do the same.”

On the other hand, Russia’s reluctance to let go of the Assad regime is partly rooted in concerns that Sunni Islamists could seize power in the event of his downfall, something that also underlies Iraq’s stance towards Syria, rather than a supposed subservience to Iran.

AS FOR Egypt, Russia and China, like Western nations, they are pursuing a policy of friendly engagement with the government under the new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Putin stressed the need for Russia-Egypt cooperation in a recent congratulatory telegram to Morsi on the anniversary of the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, while Hu Jintao, in a meeting with Egypt’s foreign minister, stressed the need to increase Sino-Egyptian economic cooperation and invited Morsi to visit China when “convenient for both sides.”

The element of pragmatism in China’s approach in particular can be seen in the case of Iraq. China had opposed the US-led invasion and had established economic ties with Saddam’s regime, but since the downfall of Iraq’s Baathists, China has sought to adapt to the new reality, even as there are many Islamists in government.

The clearest example is the 2008 signing of an oil deal between CNPC (China’s state-owned petroleum firm) and the Iraqi government, which was a reworking of a 1997 contract between CNPC and Saddam’s regime. In addition, China is assisting Iraq in the latter’s effort to revitalize its railway system.

In short, there are numerous economic and strategic interests at play when it comes to assessing the policies of Western nations, Russia and China towards the Middle East and North Africa, but currently there is no real evidence to suggest an emerging overall divide in regional approaches on the basis of hostility or sympathy towards Islamism.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. James Amir Jawad is a graduate student in History at Swansea University.

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