As Islamist extremism rises in South Asia, the new Quad offers a different vision of cooperation in the Middle East
A new collaboration of the United States, India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been created focused on economic and developmental cooperation in healthcare, investment, climate change, energy, and other allied matters.
This has been described as the ‘new Quad’, to differentiate from the older Quad of India, US, Australia, and Japan in the Indo-Pacific. Several attributes of this grouping have been noted including India’s widening footprint in the Middle East, deepening partnership between the US and India in the region, and strengthening of Israel-UAE ties, which only established diplomatic ties in 2020, under a broader framework.
But there is another critical context to this new Quad which is perhaps not being adequately discussed. It is happening against the backdrop of the rising spectre of Islamist violence in South Asia.
The reasons for this rising threat are obvious. One immediate trigger is the return of the Islamist Taliban government in Afghanistan. The end of the war in Afghanistan has, in a sense, ‘freed’ many battle-hardened fighters ready to launch the next jihad, in the next destination, and their turn to South Asia was but inevitable.
The steady increase of killings especially of Hindus in Kashmir are an indication of the changing climate, as is the recent incidents of Islamist mobs attacking Durga Puja pandals and temples in Bangladesh. New CCTV video evidence has emerged of a Muslim man committing the act of desecration for which Hindus were attacked and killed. The strategy behind the violence cannot be more obvious — to create a rift between India and Bangladesh and open one more strategic front against India which is already confronting Pakistani and Chinese pressures across the Himalayan region, including Kashmir and Ladakh.
The use of fake incidents of ‘blasphemy’ created only to trigger mass attacks against minorities is straight from the playbook of Pakistani jihadists who have often used this method to target and attack minorities, for instance in the Asia Bibi case. The end goal is always to create an incident which can be depicted as blasphemy for which minorities could be targeted, even killed.
If communal disturbances could be triggered in the east, which might have a spillover effect in India, then its security would be further imperiled. Therefore, the rise of deeper official cooperation in the Middle East at such a time is the counterweight to these troubles.
It pulls the focus and the debate away from the narrow prism of jihadist violence, and conflict between Islamists and others, in the subcontinent, and elsewhere.
To understand this, one must focus on the idea of narratives in international relations — narratives speak both to domestic and international audiences, as the academic Manjari Chatterjee Miller reminded us in her recent book Why Nations Rise. Nations, and even supranational groups, operate by disseminating certain narratives about their role and place in the world.
The Islamist narrative increasingly ties India, the US and Israel, as hardline Pakistani commentators love to expound, as somehow impediments to their ‘true path’. The elimination of these impediments finds repeated and fervent mention in their narratives.
The counter to this narrative is of course the emphasis of the fact that the US, Israel and India, and their multi-ethnic societies, offer strong democratic credentials, and pushback, to any narrative from Islamist pulpits. Their coming together with the UAE on a common platform re-emphasises the possibilities that Islamists do not wish to acknowledge or recognise. It showcases fields of opportunity, growth, cooperation and peace-making which the Islamist narratives seek to delegitimise.
The UAE is the Middle East’s most liberal region and its relentless efforts at partnerships for peace and prosperity for its people and the region underline the importance for developing new ways of thinking about the region and the world.
It must be noted that simultaneously India has also reached an agreement with Dubai to build infrastructure in Kashmir. This is something Pakistan always resisted. Pakistan has never wanted key members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to be involved in Kashmir — apart from supporting Pakistan’s stance on the region. The UAE commits to building infrastructure in Kashmir could well open the floodgates to more involvement and commitment to rebuilding Kashmir from the wealthy OIC states — all well within the contours of Indian nationhood. Therefore, while studying the new Quad, the allied story of India-UAE cooperation on Kashmir must be kept in mind.
The new Quad, therefore, provides scope for developing a different story, away from the constant focus on the Taliban and the spread of Islamist violence across the South Asian region, and the parts of the region becoming an expanding hub of supporting and assisting the spread of jihad.
Simply by existing and engaging on significant economic and developmental issues, the new Quad challenges the dominance of the Islamist narrative. Its importance lies in becoming a ‘safe space’ for encouraging a new kind of imagination which is aware of, but refuses to be trapped by, merely anxieties of the past.
For all the partners of the new Quad, this is an opportunity to build an alternative universe which presents, from time to time, evidence of what is possible if one is not confined to prejudices. This grouping has some of the most important creators, and consumers, of cutting-edge security apparatus and undoubtedly their showcase of technological cooperation would demonstrate what kind of interactions are possible in building better, surer, defence systems.
For its possibilities, and even its sheer optics, then, the new Quad is an important method to counter the rising tide of Islamist violence in South Asia and in other parts of the world.
The writer is a multiple award-winning historian and author. The views expressed are personal.
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