|Stephen Saideman: Treading an ethnic minefield
By STEPHEN SAIDEMAN / The Dallas Morning News
The Bush administration is working hard to engage other countries in the
fight against terrorism. But one of the obstacles to forming a successful
coalition is the conflict's ethno-religious definition.
As we learned when the world addressed Yugoslavia's wars of
disintegration, the international relations of ethno-religious conflicts
can be quite complicated, if not inevitably contentious.
Countries tend to side with the combatant with which they share
ethno-religious ties. Iran and other Islamic countries supported the
Bosnians. Austria, Germany and Italy backed Croatia. Greece, Russia and
other countries with Orthodox populations helped Serbia. All of that
complicated multilateral decision-making.
Will ethnic politics paralyze action or limit the United States to
acting unilaterally as it responds to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?
Cut both ways
Ethno-religious identities can cut both ways, causing some countries to
ally with the United States and alienating others. The enemy of my enemy
is my friend – a truism in international politics but also an important
dynamic in ethnic conflict.
We already are seeing countries that have long disagreements with the
United States offering support. India, for example, has offered the use
of its bases, its intelligence and its territory for American forces,
despite a history of tension with the United States. Russia has been
sending mixed messages. President Vladimir Putin has offered support,
but the military has indicated that no basing will be provided. That may
change because Russians have been harmed by Taliban/Osama bin
Countries with significant Islamic populations are exposed to
conflicting sentiments. Muslims might identify with their religious kin
in harm's way. And American attacks on Afghanistan might cause a
backlash, perhaps even endangering moderate regimes in the Middle East.
But while that danger is real, it may not be as problematic as feared.
The brand of Islam promulgated by the Taliban and Osama bin Laden isn't
widely shared. Separating the Taliban and Osama bin Laden from other
Islamic countries will be difficult but not impossible, as Pakistan's
apparently supportive efforts indicate.
President Bush's speech last week showed that the administration is on
the right path, focusing on the terrorist threat rather than defining
the enemy in religious terms. There is more sympathy in the Middle East
for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks than the TV reports might
indicate. That can and should be tapped.
Furthermore, the Bush administration has made all of the right moves –
the multi-religious cast at the National Cathedral a week ago, Mr.
Bush's meeting with Muslim-American leaders and the FBI's investigation
of hate crimes directed against American Muslims. Such actions not only
serve the better interests of Americans but will help to legitimize the
anti-terrorist effort abroad.
The U.S. government needs to take into account the ethno-religious
dimensions of the war on terrorism as it considers its next steps.
Specifically, the indiscriminate use of force would be
counterproductive. Presenting the world with evidence of Osama bin
Laden's guilt would be helpful, so that the United States doesn't appear
to be guilty of picking convenient Muslims.
This conflict is likely to be longer and more complicated, politically
as well as militarily, than past conflicts. It also will require a more
nuanced understanding of ethno-religious identity and politics.
Stephen M. Saideman is an associate professor of political science at
Texas Tech University and the author of The Ties That Divide.