The stage was contrived but the empathy was spontaneous when Burma’s iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama addressed the media at her home in Yangon on Friday. BBC, the quasi-official voice of Britain, reported that a Nobel Peace Prize winner had met America’s President.
Actually, both have won this award. But memory also passes its own judgement, and often edits out an undeserving honour. Obama will enter history books for many reasons, but joy to the world is not among them. Joy has disappeared even in America, where voters punished him this month by trouncing his party candidates for Congress. Among their grievances was the belief that Obama had weakened America. Their evidence? The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS].
Its self-styled Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is now busy patching together the symbols of independence. He has set up a Shura [an early Islamic version of consensus decision-making] and promised to mint dinars that will, literally, be worth their weight in gold — or in silver and copper for lower denominations. Just in case you missed the news, one side will display the seven stalks of wheat mentioned in the Quran, while the other has a map of the world.
Why the map? Because the Caliph wants to bring the world under his rule. How? Check out the silver dinar. It shows a sword and shield, symbols of his jihad. Separately, Al Qaeda has already declared war on a range of nations, including India and Burma, but this is a purely terrorist enterprise. The Caliph already has geography and for the immediate future has his eyes set on Saudi Arabia. That will give him even more oil, as well as, and this is far more important, control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. You cannot be a true Caliph without being custodian of the two mosques.
One western leader, who seems clearly disoriented by the thought, is British Prime Minister David Cameron. He told reporters in London last week that British youth who had gone to join the jihad would not be permitted to return home for two years. On the 731st day, however, it would all be okay. Prodigals would be welcomed back with one of four options: trial; detention at home; police monitoring or a de-radicalisation course at some pretty university. He did not extend the offer to the fatted calf, which the prodigal son got in the Bible, but there will be enough calves for the jihadi during home detention, that gracious example of punitive action. Jihadis can also watch all the BBC serials they want; in the grey-dom of British intelligence, this is known as a sophisticated form of torture.
Something strange is going on in Britain, and I am not talking merely of government-speak. According to the Sunday Times of London, an opinion poll conducted by Populus revealed that one in seven Britons felt “warmly” towards ISIS. This is the warmth of approval, not the ire of wrath. Is this the romance of the negative among young Muslims, a form of reprisal against cultural excess and social alienation in their own communities? ISIS certainly has become a visible magnet for an alarming number of young men in Pakistan, and in other Muslim communities. It is still marginal in India, but we should not ignore the peril.
The ISIS upsurge in Pakistan is logical. We tend to forget that the first Islamic state in the post-colonial era was Pakistan. This fact was disguised for a long while because Pakistan won allies in the West. But the essential character of the state will assert itself in the minds of enough citizens. The suicide factories are probably gearing up for production of a new generation of warriors.
The Pakistan establishment, in the meanwhile, has turned this into another cash-in opportunity. For decades it has milked Washington, first to battle the Soviet Union, which ended in a handsome victory in Afghanistan. But next came a classic double game: with one hand, it took dollars to fight America’s enemies, and with the other hand patted the anti-American jihad on the back. At the moment of writing, the Pak army chief, General Raheel Sharif is headed to Washington with a new inscription on the begging bowl: cash and hardware, please, to fight ISIS volunteers on Pak soil.
The bookends are confusion in London and cynicism in Islamabad. But the encouraging news is that there is growing clarity in Washington. The extraordinary reality is that, without making any fuss, and with implicit bipartisan consent, America has accepted Iran as a battlefield ally in the conflict against a Sunni Caliph. Iran has boots on the ground; America is using satellite intelligence and air power to degrade and destroy ISIS military capacity to the extent it can.
Obama tried, perhaps, to justify his Nobel Peace certificate for half a decade. We should welcome this failure. A peace prize is folly until the war is won, and this war is going to take time.