How do you translate e pluribus unum into Arabic and Farsi?
The risk of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the most powerful Muslim nations, has never been greater. Their rivalry can be understood in two ways. The first is simply as two powerful nations facing each other on either side of the Persian Gulf, equals in the sense that they both possess massive petroleum reserves. The second is as spiritual powers, as together they represent the two dominant traditions of Islam: Sunni and Shia. They are divided by language (Arabic vs. Farsi), an ancient theological rift dating back to the struggle for the succession of the Prophet Muhammad, and their competing ambition to support regional political causes outside their own territory.
At a conference attended by parliamentary representatives from Islamic countries, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has responded to the increase in tension by calling for unity of the Muslim world. These were his words: “The world of Islam, with such a large population and plenty of facilities, can certainly create a great power within the world and become influential through unity. Such warmongering among the world of Islam must be stopped and we should not allow that a safe haven be created for the Zionist regime.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An imaginary idea or fanciful hope of solidarity between people who have more reasons historically to be rivals or even enemies than to be allies
The recent rise to power of Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia, coupled with the daring politics of American real estate autocrat Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has put pressure on every nation in the region to redefine loyalties. The US invasion and military occupation of Iraq produced a paradoxical outcome. After toppling Saddam Hussein’s Baathist (Sunni) regime, the victorious US established a Shia regime, thereby enabling the consolidation of a horizontal band of Iranian influence across Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. This could only displease Sunni Saudi Arabia, which has long been the closest ally of the US in the Middle East.
Even more paradoxically, the response to growing Iranian influence has been to encourage a rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the form of a blockade on Qatar, a Sunni state deemed too friendly with or too dependent on Iran, and then the forming of a close alliance — engineered by the US — between Saudi Arabia and Israel. At the same time, MBS has begun to put pressure on Iraq in an effort of possible realignment but without promising or even suggesting any form of unity. MBS, backed by Trump and aligned with Israel, wants to be the top dog and unique power broker in the region.
This confusion of alliances and loyalties has provided Khamenei with the perfect pretext for comparing a holy alliance within Islam with an unholy alliance with Israel and the United States. In classic populist fashion, he has directed his appeal to the diversity of populations making up the umma (nation or community) across the region. In their diversity (Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Persians, Shias, Sunnis and possibly others, including Druze though probably not Bahá’í), all these people have an historic connection to Islam and aspire to conditions of peace after decades of wars that have always turned around the economic and political interests of the West.
At the same time as Ayatollah Khamenei shuffles the deck in the Middle East, in the Far East, South and North Korea have surprised everyone, and especially the US and Japan, by agreeing to unify their representation at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games and compete under a single flag. With its usual understatement, the Financial Times points out that “the diplomatic thaw complicates President Donald Trump’s efforts to impose ‘maximum pressure’ on Pyongyang.” The worst outcome imaginable for the US would be an eventual reunification of Korea, though if it were to happen it would be a long way off. The prospect would remove the main foundation of its military power on the Asian side of the Pacific and seriously weaken it if productive talks even got under way.
But the unification of the two Koreas would be even more uncomfortable for the Japanese, who have begun to complain about it, possibly in the hope that the US will find a way of preventing the scenario from developing. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono has disparaged the peaceful initiative as a mere “charm offensive” in attempt to play the wise mentor for the South Koreans, warning them not to get in bed with the big, bad wolf. But for historical reasons, Koreans, North and South, have little inclination to allow themselves to be guided by Japan. And while Trump claims that the pressure he has put on North Korea has led Kim Jong-un to begin negotiating with his neighbors to the south, he has taken self-contradictory positions concerning negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington. He clearly doesn’t know which way to turn, but pretends to save face by calling this his strategy of not giving away his cards in a game of poker.
So, unity is an ideal to be invoked in both the Middle East and the Far East. But the current landscape in both regions offers us a picture of total confusion as different actors: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, the US (Donald Trump vs Rex Tillerson vs the Pentagon, all singing in a different key), Israel, Syria, North and South Korea, China and Russia have all joined a chaotic poker game with an absent or invisible dealer.
And that’s just the East, Near and Far. What about Europe and Britain? What about Africa?
And what about the West as a whole, under American leadership? A new Gallup survey “confirms some of the worst fears of foreign policy analysts in the US and Europe that Trump’s “America first” approach, combined with his volatile and irascible personality, is weakening cohesion among western democracies.” The post-World War II order produced what appeared to be an enduring consensus among developed nations that relied for its cohesion, its “unity,” on the leadership role of the US. “The survey of opinion in 134 countries showed a record collapse in approval for the US role in the world, from 48% under Obama to 30% after one year of Donald Trump — the lowest level Gallup has recorded since beginning its global leadership poll over a decade ago.”
Clearly the unity of the past is behind us, probably unrecoverable. What will be the unity — or multiple unities — of the future?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.