A meeting in London recently witnessed a minor argument between a Kosovar alim and activist and an Iranian alim about the NATO bombing. In his speech, the Kosovar brother welcomed the NATO bombing, saying that the Muslims of Kosova hoped to be able to build an independent Muslim country in the new geo-political realities of the region. During the discussion following the speeches, the Iranian brother objected, saying that the west had not bombed for the Kosovars’ sake, are implacable enemies of Muslims everywhere, and the Kosovars should know better than to take them as their friends. The Kosovar brother’s response was short and to the point: where were the Muslims when we needed them? NATO came in, did the job and were the only friends the Kosovars had. At which point the chairman intervened and the meeting moved on.
It may be too soon to look back at the Kosovar war and try to understand its real import. However, what can be said is that each brother was correct from his own perspective. The Kosovars’ immediate need is for breathing-space to try to rebuild their shattered lives and community. It is true that the Serbs’ ‘ethnic cleansing’ was stepped up massively when NATO’s bombing started, and that NATO did not do as much as they could have ï they refused to risk their pilots’ lives, for example, or expensive hardware such as Apache ground-attack helicopters. But the situation before the bombing was already virtually intolerable for the Kosovars, living in constant fear as the Serbs attacked at random and at will. Their feeling now is that at least the power of the Serbs has been blunted, albeit at a cost; they are able to return home; and they can try to rebuild their lives in relative peace. That is the main priority for ordinary people in such situations, not high-faluting political theories and analyses; and understandably so. Let us pray that their hopes will be fulfilled, although that seems unlikely as it depends on western protection.
But the Iranian brother, looking at the situation from a greater distance, was also correct. Every point he made was valid; they are simply not the Kosovars’ immediate concerns. That the west is not primarily interested in helping the Kosovars does not change the fact that the Kosovars have become perhaps the first victims of modern ‘ethnic cleansing’ to return to their homes with the chance (albeit slim) of genuine freedom in the future. Their situation could have been much worse. The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians exiled for decades, many of them in appalling refugee camps, would have settled for that, even if it had only been with the help of an unreliable and self-interested ally.
But we should not let this accident of history ï this chance part-meeting of interests ï blind us to the west’s true, well-established nature. This was the Iranian brother’s point. The west has never acted out of altruism, and it has not started doing so now. What then prompted this ‘humanitarian war’? Partly, no doubt, it was pique at the Serbs’ refusal to accept NATO dictat at Rambouillet and earlier talks. (The French, among others, are convinced that the US had decided to bomb before Rambouillet, and merely went through the motions at those talks.) It may also have been linked to an American desire to establish a firmer foothold in Europe at a time when the EU was moving towards greater military co-ordination outside the trans-Atlantic alliance. And many are also convinced that the US has ambitions on oil and mineral resources in the region, as well as intending to establish a regional foothold for sharing in the resources of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
It is perhaps too early to say for sure what the west’s real interests are. Probably they are a combination of all the above and many more. What can be said (and what our Iranian brother did say) is that any benefit to Muslims from the west’s policies can only be incidental, and cannot be depended on in the future. But our Kosovar brother was also right to ask: where were the Muslims? We were not there, it is true, because we do not and cannot exercise that sort of power in the world ï the power to intervene wherever and whenever we want to do what is right. For now, that is something we can only aspire to through the efforts of the Islamic movement to establish Islamic states. In the long run, that is the only power Muslims anywhere can really rely on.
Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1999