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The Rise of Political Islamism and the Anti-terrorism Cooperation of China and the U.S.

Sep 20 , 2011

The political development of Middle East and Central Asia (MECA) went through the whole 20th century. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, the core area of the Islamic world represented by MECA was in complete control by the powers outside the area. There were power struggle and development of Islam revival in the fragmented Islamic core area. The clash of civilization described by Huntington, was actually emerging in MECA after the end of the First World War, but concealed by the confrontation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and later by the global anti-terrorism war after the Cold War. But to observe the political and security situation in MECA, it is necessary to keep in mind the Islamic characteristics in the area.

Internally speaking, the security situation in MECA depends on two factors: one is the long-time rigidity of the political system, while the other is the development of religious extremist power. No matter whether the rigid political system will be successfully overthrown or not, it inevitably leads to the political unrest and the rise of political opposition power represented by political Islamism movement. The political revolt outside the system will eventually resort to violence and extremism, where terrorism will thrive.

Where there is political struggle, there is political reform. In the history, the political reform in MECA area usually went through three phases: firstly, a people’s revolution to overthrow the old regime; secondly, the new regime started political cleansing and established the ruling foundation; thirdly, the rise of religious political movement, and the political development got into a turbulent yet stalemate situation.

For the political unrest in the Middle East, it is still at the first phase of the revolution. The street revolution targets at the countries in the Western Asia and the North Africa where people are upset by the governments, and those countries are all the determined allies of the western countries in the area. The second phase of the revolution is partly unfolding in some countries. The old regime is forced to reform, and the new ruling power starts cleansing and attacks the opposite powers, while the new political system is established at the same time. Various political powers began to balance each other again. At the third phase of the revolution, the domestic political power rises and the religious political movement strengthens. The struggle between the secular political parties and religious political powers become the main theme of the political development. Right now this has become more and more prominent in the area.

To summarize the process of political change, the reform in MECA has two directions: domestically, the confrontation between ruling power and political Islamist overspills to the society; externally, the transnational political Islamist movements echo with each other, and affect Europe, the U.S. and some countries such as China, Russia and India which are around MECA core area. Whether it is domestically or externally speaking, the political Islamism is a core part of the political revolution. The frequent activities of the al-Qaeda in MECA are exactly the example. Besides, the development of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan; the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Gaza and Sudan; and the rise of political Islamism in the Arab revolution all show that the political Islamist movement in MECA is getting new momentum.

Although the national condition varies from country to country in MECA, if the political Islamism is unavoidable, there are three possibilities which the political development might develop into in MECA. First, it may become a modest country as Turkey. Secondly, it may turn into an extreme country as Iran. Lastly, it may become as turbulent as in Pakistan. The future development of MECA can be observed and analyzed through the patterns of the three countries.

Turkey, Iran and Pakistan are three important countries in the Islam world, which overlap with each other politically and geographically in MECA. They have great regional and global influence. The combination of the initial letters of the three countries is TIP, which in English means top and front edge, which precisely describes the prominent roles of the three countries in terms of geopolitics. They are the representative of the interaction between Islam civilization and the western world. But if the three letters combination is reversed, it turns into PIT which means pitfall, implying the hidden danger and unexpected difficulties. It can also describe the dilemma of the western world, which is led by the U.S., in the above three countries. Therefore, the analysis of the political Islamist movement in TIP countries not only helps the understanding of the domestic political development in the three countries, but also shed a light into the political development in MECA countries where the political unrest is going on.

First of all, the interaction between religion and politics in the TIP countries shows that, to prevent the Islamic influence from getting involved into secular politics again will be the main agenda of political and society development in MECA countries. Secondly, no matter whether it is the allies, semi-allies or the enemies of the U.S., the similar political development progress of TIP countries are challenging the conquer and control of the West since the 20 century in MECA. The political development might predict that in future, the tension between MECA and the West might be severer, and the international society, especially the west, should be alerted about it.

Apparently, the West would like to see the development of modest Islam in Turkey instead of the turbulence in Pakistan happening to their allies in MECA. They don’t want another Islamic Clericalism regime besides Iran. According to this logic, with the rise of current political Islamist movement, the attitude of the western countries will depend on their existing policies toward the TIP countries. Therefore, if the political development is similar as what happened in Turkey, where the modest Islam is carried out, the movement will be welcomed and encouraged by the western world. The regimes like Iran will be isolated by the western countries. The countries similar to Pakistan which is facing turbulence will be treated with swing policies. Consequently, to support Turkey, to stabilize Pakistan and to contain Iran are the main standpoints of the western countries regarding the political unrest in Arabic countries. However, it is unsure that whether the west-centric policies with stereotypes will lead to self-fulfillment, and hence lead to complete loss of western interest in MECA along with the overthrown of their former political allies. 


The rise of the Islamic extremism is a general trend, which makes China-U.S. anti-terrorism cooperation necessary. China has long been the victim of religious extremism, ethnic separatists and international terrorism in its northwest border and in MECA. China has essential interest in the anti-terrorism agenda in MECA, which make it necessary for China to cooperate effectively and actively with the U.S. in this area. As the biggest developing country and the biggest developed country, China and the U.S. will become the main countries the new regimes hope to get along with. This will provide the foundation of China-U.S. anti-terrorism cooperation in MECA.

(i) To discuss the possibility of U.S. –China anti-terrorism cooperation within the existing bilateral and multi-lateral frame, such as Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, and Gulf Cooperation Council
(ii) To deepen the interaction between the militaries of the two countries, to further sum up the experience of the joint anti-piracy practice of the two countries in the Gulf of Aden, to safeguard the navigation safety in the area
(iii) To discuss the possibility of anti-terrorism cooperation among China, the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan
(iv) To strike all kinds of terrorism, avoiding double standards.

Wang Lian is Professor of Department of International Politics, School of International Studies, Peking University.

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