Books: Vituperative relations

Paul Danahar’s dust cover portrait looks haunted. Not surprisingly, given his long years entangled in the writhing guts of Middle Eastern politics. But his book is a model of sense and calm analysis – and he even has a wry sense of humour.

One can only admire his honest and persuasive observations on the mind-boggling complications of the region. Somehow, he contrives to make it all readable. And often fascinating.

Danahar was the BBC’s Middle East bureau chief (2010-13). He is now North American bureau chief, based  in Washington. He may find DC a tad dull after the volcanic excitements of the Arab Spring. Having met and interviewed sundry national leaders before that tide of change burst upon the world, he makes if perfectly clear that the upheaval will continue.

Young Muslims are restless, and rich princes who have long kept a semblance of order in the Gulf states should tremble at the revolutionary possibilities of the electronic era.

Many of his conclusions will astonish Westerners: the Arab Spring has proven that the jihadists’ ideology is bankrupt, he contends. “Real change does not come only from the barrel of a gun. The overwhelming majority of Muslims always believed that to be true. They never bought into the ideology of al-Qaeda. It frustrates them enormously that sections of the Western world even now don’t believe them when they say that.”

Danahar notes that the US believes the “Islamist phase of terrorism” is receding and could end by 2030. While that may happen in regard to the global jihadists, the Syrian war has encouraged them in that region. Which could be a problem for Israel. Israel has enough internal problems of its own, not excluding vituperative relations between orthodox and secular Jews.

Most significantly, he sees no end to the hatred between the Sunni and Shia forces of the Middle East, which will continue beyond the outcome of the Syrian disaster. The more the Gulf states turn the Syrian crisis into a proxy war over God, the more that sectarian violence will flow into the region. If the Sunni and Shia are seen to be slaughtering each other in Syria, that will impact on communal relations in countries not directly connected to the conflict.

Danahar says President Barack Obama’s promise of a “New Beginning” in America’s US relations with the Arab world now sounds hollow. “Whatever the West does now to help the rebels could have been done earlier. The Arab world won’t forget that. The inaction over Syria may end up harming America’s standing in the Muslim world just as much as the worst excesses of the ‘War on Terror’.”

Perhaps, in a few years’ time, the US administration will be crafting a speech to explain why the last guy got it wrong and offering another deal for the future.

Ominously, Danahar notes that George Bush led America into Iraq without a plan, and Obama kept America out of Syria without a plan.

“Not acting is not passive”. Tell that to President Jacob Zuma and his cabinet.

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