The Independent View: An Arab EU could be the answer the Middle East needs

The Islamic State is a symptom of a much wider and more dangerous split in the Islamic world between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities across the Middle East. Whatever action Western governments undertake to stop the Islamo-fascists ISIS, more must be done to mend an age-old split between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

We often forget the seeds of this current conflict, instinctively looking to regional instability in Syria as the catalyst for the events currently unfolding in Iraq. In 2007 a suicide bomb attack, the most damaging for four years, was directed not at US armed forces but at the largest Shia community in Baghdad. In August of that year over 500 Yazadis were killed in a trademark Al-Qaeda-style attack in four locations simultaneously in towns around Mosul.

This latest phase is the most recent chapter in an escalating conflict between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish Muslims lasting over a thousand years.

An Iraq divided along sectarian lines may well become inevitable as the US-armed Kurdish Peshmergha push for independence, and a Shia majority in the east cut their losses and cede everything east of Fallujah to ISIS fighters. Such clear divisions just set up a theatre for future wars, greater cultural division and states which will be deeply suspicious of minorities as the “enemy within”.

The execution of James Foley by an alleged British national will damage the debate here about what should be done in Iraq and will strengthen the calls for a full scale military intervention. The military advance of ISIS is a symptom, not the cause of conflict in Iraq and policy makers must adapt accordingly.

The media has only provided us with various flavours of military intervention – arming the Kurds, a no fly zone and air strikes. The media frames extremism as a failure of military force. Extremism is nothing more than a narrative. ISIS wants military intervention in Iraq because it feeds the narrative they have created – that there is an unjust war, led by Western powers being waged against Islamic states and Muslim values.

This narrative must be challenged. Britain already leads the world in conflict prevention initiatives and is the home of the world’s first counter extremism think-tank, Quilliam. The military might of the west may be able to crush ISIS but it will be for nought if we don’t challenge the ideas that compel Iraqi, Syrian and British Muslims to fight under the banner of ISIS.

There is a critical role for the Conflict Pool (UK government’s largest fund for conflict prevention projects) which has been active in Iraq almost since the fund’s inception. The most important question for peacebuilding in Iraq is what we do next.

On the Centenary of World War One it is important to remember that parts of Europe, fuelled by petty nationalism and a mistrust of religious minorities, almost brought the world to its knees in the most destructive wars the world has ever seen. Europe has dealt with extremism by promoting internationalism on its own shores.

International institutions borne of the First and Second World War kept increasing dialogue between nations at the top of the agenda for decades. Now in Europe we stand up as a model for international co-operation and stability. A war on central European soil which sucked in the entire world only 70 years ago is now unthinkable.

International institutions will play a crucial role in bringing different communities at risk of extremism together. Dialogue between Sunni & Shia tribes must be central to any post-conflict reconstruction.

The Arab world needs to embrace the sort of institutions that make borders and nationality that extremism feeds on, less relevant.

Peacebuilding efforts in the Middle East should be geared towards fostering greater social, cultural and economic interdependence across the region. An Arab version of the EU? In these chaotic times it may seem like a pipe dream – but a United Arab States of the East may be the answer the region needs.

* Shaughan Dolan is Campaigns and Communications Officer for Conscience: Taxes for Peace not War

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21 Comments

  • This is all fine. But it’s non Shia or Sunni Muslim minorities who are most threatened at the moment, along with Christians, Jews and non-Abrahamic sects. A Sunni/Shia carve up would do nothing to protect them.

  • Julian Tisi 22nd Aug '14 - 1:31pm

    A lovely idea but I just can’t see it happening. Europe post World Wars was a small continent with developed though ravaged economies, lots of culture, history and broadly homogeneous (Christian) roots. Coming out of years of suffering there was a real impetus to come together and unite and there were politicians (Schumann, Monet, even our own Winston Churchill) prepared to make it happen. I really don’t see an analagous situation across the Middle East today, aside from being a region ravaged by war and conflict for far too long.

    Also, in 1945 the Nazis were defeated. Whereas in the Middle East today there are some truly terrifyingly evil groups, notably the Islamic State, who are far from defeated but on the rise. I suspect that before any sort of Middle Eastern EU could happen we would need moderate and inclusive Arab governments to make it happen. Sadly most are anything but moderate and inclusive.

  • Geoffrey Payne 22nd Aug '14 - 1:47pm

    The problem I find as I read this is that the article does not refer to any significant section of the Arab population that is calling for this. If we look at this through western eyes we can find all kinds of potential solutions but they are highly unlikely to work unless there is significant support for it.
    I am not saying that I have the solution, I think the best we can do is to try and stop making the situation worse. Stop selling arms to illiberal regimes (which in the Middle East is virtually all of them).
    Although in the short term I would admit we need to constrain the Islamic State and that will probably mean we need to provide arms to those who are defending themselves from them.
    There west has little credibility in the region after the shambles following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing conflict in Israel. The Arab countries have rapidly expanding populations and as a result high unemployment which leads to unrest. There is also a problem in many places of corruption. These are the hard to solve issues that need to be worked on and there are no obvious answers.

  • There have been previous efforts at developing political and economic union among Arab States. The short lived United Arab States combining Egypt, Syria and North Yemen in a political confederation from 1958 to 1961. Neither the union of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic or the confederation fulfilled their role as vehicles of pan-Arabism or Arab nationalism, as they were dissolved in 1961.

    Saudi Arabia is keen to develop the Gulf Co-operation Council into a more formal economic and military union. A GCC common market was launched in 2008, granting national treatment to all GCC firms and citizens in any other GCC country, removing all barriers to cross-country investment and services trade.

    In 2009, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia announced the creation of a Monetary Council, a step toward establishing a shared currency. The board of the council, is charged with setting a timetable for establishing a joint central bank and choosing a currency regime.

    Regrettably, such initiatives are unlikely to diminish the ongoing struggle for hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran or significantly temper the inherent barbarism of political Islam.

    The West will be forced to engage the Islamic State in a campaign of extermination as it has with Al Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups.

    Neither Syria or Iraq can be re-established under an Assad or Shia dominated leadership by UN resolutions or Western intervention. People will do the only thing they can do – seek the protection of their tribal clans in areas under the common control of their ethnic groups or co-religionists. This is not dissimilar to the mass relocations that occurred across central and Eastern Europe in the wake of WW2 or in the break-up of Yugoslavia.

  • A multi-tier EU is the way to go. We should extend our current Union and invite all contiguous countries to join, but divide it into multiple economic regions according to GDP. There could then be free movement of labour among those of similar economic standing, and promotion to a higher tier for countries that grew sufficiently. This has the potential to encourage the spread of the ECHR and modern legal standards, and incentivises economic development and conflict resolution, but does not mean opening borders to mass immigration from Africa and West Asia in the short or medium term, which would be untenable in my view.

  • David Allen 22nd Aug '14 - 4:47pm

    “A multi-tier EU is the way to go. We should extend our current Union and invite all contiguous countries to join..”

    No, no, no! That’s how we in the EU kicked off the Ukraine debacle. We dangled temptation in front of Western Ukraine, and thereby threatened the interests of Eastern Ukraine and of Russia. Putin has behaved badly, but Europe is at fault for causing the instability in the first place. It was aggressive expansionism. The fact that we did it by diplomacy and economic means rather than by armed invasion didn’t make it any the less dangerous and damaging.

    Next, people want to take on the Middle East, become responsible for sorting out the boundaries of Kurdistan (when we can’t even sort out Scotland!), evangelise for the adoption of European concepts of human rights in the lands of ISIL…. No, no, no!

  • David Allen’s remarks reflect a deep misunderstanding of the Ukrainian situation, one which is flawed in all sorts of ways, factual and theoretical; but its biggest flaw is that it treats Ukraine as a stage on which non-Ukrainian players, the EU and Russia, act out a larger power struggle, and ignores or denies the agency of the Ukrainians themselves. The fact is that a very large number of Ukrainians wanted to be closer to Europe because they understood that to signify an escape from the crushing and paralysing corruption of the Yanukovych government. Very few Ukrainians wanted to return to being a Russian satrapy, as they had been in the days of the U.S.S.R. As liberals, we should endorse the right of a nation to freely decide with whom they wish to associate.

  • David Allen 22nd Aug '14 - 5:42pm

    David-1,

    “The fact is that a very large number of Ukrainians wanted to be closer to Europe because they understood that to signify an escape from the crushing and paralysing corruption of the Yanukovych government.”

    The fact is that Ukraine had a functioning democracy, which elected Yanukovych and could have removed him. The Western Ukrainians who resorted to force instead had understandable reasons, but their adventure has hardly turned out well. The EU shares the blame for encouraging that adventure.

    David-1 says that “as liberals, we should endorse the right of a nation to freely decide with whom they wish to associate”. I think that consequently, it is people like David-1 who have decided to “treat Ukraine as a stage on which non-Ukrainian players, the EU and Russia, act out a larger power struggle.”

  • Amel Nona, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, now exiled in Erbil, recently gave this warning against trying to implant Western style liberal and democratic principles in the middle-east:

    “Our sufferings today are the prelude of those you, Europeans and Western Christians, will also suffer in the near future. I lost my diocese. The physical setting of my apostolate has been occupied by Islamic radicals who want us converted or dead. But my community is still alive. Please, try to understand us. Your liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here. You must consider again our reality in the Middle East, because you are welcoming in your countries an ever growing number of Muslims. Also you are in danger. You must take strong and courageous decisions, even at the cost of contradicting your principles. You think all men are equal, but that is not true: Islam does not say that all men are equal. Your values are not their values. If you do not understand this soon enough, you will become the victims of the enemy you have welcomed in your home.”

  • Richard Dean 22nd Aug '14 - 6:42pm

    Are they Islamic radicals, or religious novices, or just gangsters?

    Here they are buying Islam for Dummies on Amazon …
    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/mehdi-hasan/jihadist-radicalisation-islam-for-dummies_b_5697160.html

    Here they are demanding money ….
    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28889526

  • David-1 writes:
    “As liberals, we should endorse the right of a nation to freely decide with whom they wish to associate.”
    Absolutely. And interestingly, when people do get the rare opportunity to decide for themselves, it can often give rise to peace and stability?
    Take close note that a region undertook a referendum recently and with a voter turnout of around 95%, decided collectively, peacefully and decisively on the direction of their future (association). What a pity however, that most so called ‘liberals’, frowned and screamed ‘illegal..!!’, and wished to deny them their free choice ? But note even further,… that there are no rocket propelled grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets or burning tyres of protest, on their streets today ?? Indeed the only explosives, were the fireworks to celebrate their voices being heard ~ and listened to?.
    Where is this peaceful, stable place ? *Crimea*.
    It’s clearly not what the EU wants, and it’s definitely not what Washington DC wants, but hey!!,.. it’s what the residents of Crimea want, and they voted for it conclusively? So why are supposed ‘liberals’, against people deciding who they would like to associate with?

  • Because:
    (1) Crimea was not and is not a country or a nation, but part of the territory of another independent nation, Ukraine, which did not consent to having its territory invaded, occupied, and annexed by a foreign power.
    (2) The Crimean “referendum” was not a transparent expression of the will of its peoples, but a disingenuous exercise of propaganda to retroactively justify the Russian annexation of the territory. Similar “referenda” were conducted in the Polish territories annexed by Stalin’s U.S.S.R. in 1939. I suppose that Mr Dunn, in his innocence, believes those to have been “collective, peaceful, and decisive” expressions of the will of the people of those territories.

  • @ David-1
    Even if we take at face value what you say with regard to the Crimean outcome as being illegal. The crimean people seem now, to be very ‘happy with their lot’. Are you suggesting we ( UK, EU, US), blunder into Crimea to tell them, NO your choice to associate with Russia is wrong, and you must return to Ukraine? How do you think that will go down? My guess, is that such a foolish and illiberal stance, will set yet another region ‘on fire’,… as if we needed more ?
    Crimea voted,… they got what they wanted,… they are happy with the outcome. Whats not to like?

  • @David-1
    “(1) Crimea was not and is not a country or a nation, but part of the territory of another independent nation, Ukraine”

    Crimea was an autonomous republic which had never wanted to be part of an independent Ukraine. From the moment an independent Ukraine first existed (which was only 1991) the Crimeans wanted a say on whether to be part of it but were forcibly stopped from doing so.

  • @Richard Dean
    The Dummies article is fascinating. But however uneducated these men may be on matters of religion, one thing that cannot be questioned is the sheer strength of their faith. They may believe in a warped version of Islam, but it’s the power of their belief that spurs them on to do the things they do. The only potential long-term solution to this that I can see is for the Islamic world to undergo the same moderating reform that the Christian world has (by and large), but that will take literally hundreds of years if it’s possible at all.

    In the meantime, though the OP makes an interesting suggestion, it does seem naïve to me to think that all the Arab world needs is to ape Western political structures and peace and harmony will result. This is the same kind of mistake that George W Bush made. Bush genuinely believed that all he had to do was introduce elections to Iraq and a benevolent liberal society would spring up automatically in no time.

  • It won’t work. The religious identity of the Middle East (Islam ) is in its 1400th century …. look at how Europe was in the 1400s/1500s and look at the brutal sectarianism and sectarian wars and genocide in Europe back then …. would an EU have been thinkable back then? No. Don’t expect it to work in the Middle East in the 14th century of a region’s religious evolution either then. It took Europe 600 years and two world wars to arrive at the EU. Today we have an interconnected work with much more speedy dissemation of ideas, news and discussions, so I’d say it may accelerate the Middle East’s and Islam’s evolution …. may not take 600 … but will definitely take 200 years at least.

    Plus, the POLITICAL solution, once the savagery and barbarity of ideologies and people like ISIS is dealt with, HAS TO COME FROM THE REGION ITSELF, Not from some Lib Dems sitting in London.

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