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While wars and invasions against Muslim states by outside powers have taken place in the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, none of such major military and political moves in the last several decades sought to redraw boundaries or radically change the modern map of the Islamic world.
Today's Muslim states -- countries where Islam is a majority religion adhered to by the overwhelming percentage of the population -- emerged on the ruins of the last major Muslim power -- Ottoman Turkey, and as a result of the dissolution of British India. Following the end of WWI, and later on, in 1947, young nation-states emerged in place of the centuries-old established order and principles. For many decades, Western European powers, the United States and the Soviet Union all promoted the emergence of these states onto the world arena, and supported them based on their own political, military or economic interests. Assistance to these states as separate political units drove the diverse foreign policies of the major powers after both world wars, during the Cold War, and in the current unipolar environment.
Taking a look at the modern map of the Islamic world reveals a rather strange picture. In North Africa, and the Middle East, actual boundaries of states hardly correspond to the historical, cultural and ethnic make-ups of these regions. The prevalence of straight lines on the map that cut the Saharan or Arabian Deserts into independent states is just that -- lines in the sand. They divide tribes, clans, families and their corresponding histories and aspirations in an arbitrary manner.
In some cases, all that is required to cross from one North African or Arabian state to the next is to walk over a sand dune. In a region where natural boundaries such as mountains, rivers, valleys or seas are largely absent, the new "borders" came to represent independent Libya, Egypt, Algeria or Jordan. People living on the border areas of these states are hardly aware of the fact that they live across another country. Likewise, in South Asia, Pakistan and India are divided by hastily-designed borders that have been the source of conflict between these two states for the last five decades.
The powers that divided the Islamic world into modern states sought to preserve their own influence. British, French and Italian colonial holdings had to be clearly defined in the newly acquired territories of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. The easiest way to do this was to create clearly defined boundaries on the world map. The results are straight lines running across the deserts of Arabia and the Sahara. These lines, however, did not -- and still do not -- reflect the realities on the ground, where people were used to moving around with ease, unobstructed by any border checkpoints and patrols.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 delivered the first shock to the established principles of splitting the Muslim world into separate political entities. While the coming to power of a theocratic government was not by itself shocking -- most oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula were monarchic theocracies supported by the Western world -- the message and policies of the new Iranian government were alarming. The new rulers of Tehran sought to export their religious revolution to other Muslim countries and to overthrow the regimes that were either leaning towards, or were supported by, the secular, non-religious United States, Soviet Union and Western Europ.
Their motives met with relative success with the Iranian-style revolution in Sudan in the early 1980s, and the creation of the Lebanese Hizbollah movement. In effect, the Iranian theocratic government assumed the leadership of the movement to unify the Islamic world, hoping to rid it of any non-Islamic influence, or to at least unify Shi'a Muslims living in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. This has been Iran's consistent policy and while it has varied its statements and policies since 1979, the overall message is the same. What makes Iran more powerful in this scenario is the fact that it is one of the world's largest oil producers, and its aims are directed at the main oil-producing region of the world that is of immense strategic and economic importance to practically every industrialized country.
The second challenge to the non-Islamic governments of the West was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This time, the United States and its worldwide coalition responded with a powerful military operation against the Iraqi regime that became known as the Gulf War. Iraq's aims at that time were two-fold -- to achieve military hegemony in the Persian Gulf and to conquer a major oil-producing state in the region. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader, espoused claims to the leadership of the Arab world, acting as the protector of Arab Sunni countries against a recalcitrant Iranian Shi'a regime.
At that time, many Muslim states supported Iraq as the bulwark against Iran. Once Iraq invaded Kuwait, the regional powers and the West saw the possible emergence of Iraq as a major power in control of the world's oil supplies. Prior to the U.S.-led military action, the Iraqi regime stood within striking distance of Saudi Arabia and its massive oil fields, a territory that would not have been able to adequately protect itself without outside assistance. A military attack on Iraqi forces became a necessary option for Western interests to prevent the emergence of a powerful Muslim state with the capacity to act as a possible unifying force in the Muslim world due to its growing military and economic strength.
The third challenge came in the face of al-Qaeda, a powerful worldwide militant organization that calls for the unity of the umma against the United States and the West; the overthrow of secular, military, political or monarchic regimes associated with the West; and the establishment of an Islamic khilafat, or caliphate. Al-Qaeda has been linked to various Muslim militant groups operating all around the world with similar goals.
Recently, it has been suspected of cooperating with the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militant organization, as well as other non-Arab groups and movements. This particular cooperation is significant because it marks the first known operational linkage across religious and ethnic lines -- al-Qaeda is an ultra-conservative movement adhering to the Sunni branch of Islam, while Hizbollah and Iran follow Shi'a Islamic teachings. This worldwide cooperation of this network marks a serious development that is already unsettling the entire Muslim world. While al-Qaeda has been temporarily crippled by the U.S.-led assault after the September 11 terrorist attacks, there is no indication that it is letting up its efforts in the Middle East, Southeast Asia or even Europe -- in fact, its popularity is growing amongst the world's Muslims.
Given the historical progression that at one time saw powerful Islamic states play a major role in world developments, followed by their internal dissolution, later subjugation and colonization by outside powers, and the eventual emergence as many distinct entities with varying degrees of religious, political and military governance, today's Islamic world presents a fragmented picture within artificial political boundaries. If the world's current dependence on oil continues to grow -- as recent reports about China's oil consumption seem to indicate -- many Muslim states will assume greater clout in world affairs, making it harder to treat each of them separately as distinct "identities" vis-Ю-vis other states.
The latest developments in the "war on terrorism" point to unifying movements in the Islamic world, either with Iran's help or under the banner of al-Qaeda and its allies -- a more coordinated attack on Western principles and Western interests in the Muslim world that cut across the religious and ethnic divides. While U.S. efforts in Iraq have faltered since 2003, the January 30 Iraqi election following a relatively successful election in Afghanistan will prove to be one of the turning points in the development of the Islamic world, which will either accept and foster the Western model and emerge as a collection of distinct and friendly states, or will finally break under the pressure of Iran and al-Qaeda and begin to emerge as a unified religious, political and military entity, heralding a new chapter in world history.