Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, yet despite the faith's strengths, many Muslim-majority countries lag behind in educational and social development. Only about 40 percent of the world's estimated 1.2 billion-1.5 billion Muslims are literate. There are barely 500 universities in all the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), compared to 8,406 in impoverished India.
Since the 1967 war with Israel, and with added oxygen from the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the principal subject of dialogue within the Arab world has been the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Regimes that have for decades refused to democratize or to govern on the basis of human rights or to combat poverty and other forms of injustice have used the issue to divert their peoples' attention from core interests -- health care, housing, education, gender justice, and more. But these were the issues that formed the agenda of a January 19-20 summit in Kuwait, attended by all 22 Arab countries.
Kuwait is an appropriate venue for such a summit, as it is one of the few Arab democracies, with women being granted the vote four years ago. The Kuwaiti parliament had its privileges defined during the reign of Amir Abdullah (1950-65), who set up an elected legislature and ensured that the appointed cabinet accepted the oversight of lawmakers. Indeed, the first Consultative Council was set up as early as 1921, making Kuwait one of the first countries in Asia to have representative institutions.
The policies of the ruling al-Sabah family may accurately be termed "Sabahism." Unlike more conservative Muslim states like Sudan and Saudi Arabia, women in Kuwait have the freedom to dress as they please and to work outside the home. Religious minorities are free to worship without harassment. Although there are still some curbs on individual freedom that have been abandoned by Dubai and Bahrain, overall Kuwait is the freest country in the Arab world -- and the one where oil wealth has been distributed most equitably. One can only hope that Sabahism will rise in the Middle East and that Wahabbism and other extreme tendencies decline.
But Iran and Syria continue to insist that the Arab discourse focus exclusively on the tragic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Both back Hamas and Hezbollah, which openly profess a "state of war" with Israel and have the disappearance of the Jewish state among their aims. Tehran and Damascus received unexpected help in this diversionary tactic from Qatar, which organized a Gaza-related summit on January 16.
Qatar, the maverick among the Gulf sheikdoms, seems to be pursuing a Pakistan-style policy of simultaneously being a Western ally and siding with anti-Western groups. The military in Pakistan has perfected such a balancing act over the last few decades, providing cover to groups that espouse violence against India (and, increasingly, the West) even while remaining a NATO ally. Now Qatar seems to be following a similar twin-track policy. It has granted the United States use of a major military base, but balanced this by welcoming Hamas and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to the hastily convened Doha summit. This ensured that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Fatah would not attend the event, which had as its aim the refocusing of Arab attention exclusively on the Palestinian question just three days before the Kuwait summit on social justice.
Hamas and Fatah represent two opposing visions of the future of Palestine. Hamas and other radical groups are rejectionist, seeking the demise of the state of Israel, through violence if necessary. In contrast, Fatah is willing to engage in dialogue and a policy of mutual conciliation in order to achieve an independent Palestinian state. Although the victory of Hamas in local elections in Gaza in 2005 would seem to be a show of public support for its hard line against Israel, the vote can more correctly be seen as an expression of anger at the corruption and malfeasance of Fatah, issues that continue to bedevil the party in the West Bank and which Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas has failed to address.
Breaking The Cycle
The overwhelming majority of Palestinians are just like other people around the world -- wanting primarily safety and economic opportunity. But because of the security precautions necessitated by the activities of Hamas and other radical groups, and because of the existence of Israeli settlements on land in the West Bank that would clearly form part of any future Palestinian state, life in the West Bank is at best a purgatory and often a living hell. In Gaza, conditions are even more dire because of Hamas's insistence on war with Israel. Only the restoration of moderate rule in Gaza will create the preconditions necessary for an Israeli withdrawal that could fuel an economic boom financed by the Arab states.
During the Kashmir insurgency in the 1990s, some Pakistanis used to quip -- with some grain of seriousness -- that "the Pakistani Army will fight India down to the last Kashmiri." Today, it appears Iran is willing to fight Israel down to the last Palestinian. And Syria has signed on, in its desire to weaken Israel and secure more advantageous conditions for a peace deal that would return the Golan Heights to Damascus.
Six decades of often-violent confrontation with Israel have brought misery to the Palestinian people. Clearly it is time to try nonviolence. If the current psychology of most Israelis has historical precedent, it is with that of the British nation during India's independence campaign in the early 20th century. As India intensified its struggle between 1921 and 1947, the nonviolent policies of its leaders forced the British to make one concession after another despite Britain's overwhelming military superiority -- concessions that were often painful for Winston Churchill and others who sought the preservation of the British Empire. Likewise, nonviolent tactics now can accelerate the emergence of an independent Palestinian state.
A useful starting point for talks with Israel -- talks that can begin in earnest once violence has been renounced and Israel's right to exist affirmed -- can be the Saudi proposal to return to the borders of 1967. Although Israel is unlikely to accept this position without some adjustments, it may be willing to accept a fully independent Palestinian entity that can start on the road toward economic development. With the talents of the Palestinian people and the economic support of the wealthy Arab states, Gaza could be transformed into a Middle Eastern Singapore and the West Bank could develop a prosperous education-, research-, and tourism-based economy. The Arab world is crying out for top-quality educational centers and the Palestinian territories can seize this opportunity, provided its leaders choose nonviolence.
Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion to help reconstruct Gaza. Qatar has pledged $250 million and other Arab states seem poised to follow suit. Kuwait is discussing a $500 million aid package. In contrast, Iran and Syria have offered aid only in the form of inflammatory rhetoric. It is important to ensure the aid going to Gaza now is not used to advance any agenda of violence. Gazans must break out of this vicious cycle.
The Kuwait summit declared the goal of improving health care, education, and social justice throughout the Arab world, where 70 percent of the population is under the age of 40. Arab leaders must not allow themselves to be sidetracked from this crucial work by those that preach only bloodshed and division, and who have brought only misery to those who followed them.
M.D. Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair and is director of the Department of Geopolitics at Manipal University in India. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL