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13 February 2006

Cartoons and oil

The Americans are seeking ways to cut themselves off from the Muslim world. For Europe that is not a

By Lindsey Hilsum

Before the cartoon dispute reached its zenith, President George W Bush had already signed up to a ground-breaking solution: end the US “addiction to oil”, specifically dependence on Middle Eastern oil. In his State of the Union address last month he endorsed the agenda of what have become known as the geo-greens – those who believe that the west should diversify from dependence on fossil fuels, not because of global warming, but to shield “our” way of life from terrorism and turmoil in the Middle East.

The influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has pioneered this thinking, saying that in Arab countries where the only alternative to autocratic leadership is the mosque, inevitably the first wave of democracy brings Islamists to office. That potentially puts oil wealth in the hands of those who would burn down Danish embassies, or worse.

Mainstream US policy-makers might at this point stop pushing unfettered democratisation on the Arab world, but for the Bush administration a retreat from the “forward strategy of freedom” would be an admission of failure. Hence the idea of an economic “separation barrier” between the Muslim-Arab Middle East and the US, like the physical “separation barrier” Israel has built to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers.

The strategy is ostensibly about economics, politics and security, but underneath it is about culture and religion, too. No one in government in the US or Europe endorses the “clash of civilisations” thesis any more because it is deemed racist, but the reaction to the Danish cartoons across the Muslim world may give the idea of a “separation of civilisations” more currency.

Ending dependence on Middle East oil is not a new idea – it was first mooted in the 1970s when Opec raised the price, and the west suddenly understood what it meant to be in hock to the House of Saud. But then non-Opec countries started to produce more, the price came down and few thought seriously about it again until the events of 11 September 2001. Since then the price of oil has more than tripled and the Middle East has been destabilised as much by US intervention as radical Islam.

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Even Hollywood is playing out nightmare scenarios. The new film Syriana – the title is a word used by Washington think-tanks to denote a reshaping of the Middle East – revolves around the idea that American families can no longer afford to heat their homes and 90 per cent of the world’s remaining oil is in Arab countries. Bush echoed the film’s message: dependence means weakness, and America cannot afford it.

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Anyone who cares about the environment should welcome geo-green thinking, because nothing else is making the Bush administration contemplate reducing oil consumption and – by accident – carbon emissions. Anti-war campaigners should be happy, too – an end to oil dependence might mean that the US military would no longer feel the urge to intervene in the region. As Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary for defence under Ronald Reagan, put it after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf war in 1991: “If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn’t give a damn.”

But an economic separation barrier might come too late. Iran denies that it is developing a nuclear weapon, but it would be understandable that the Islamic Republic should try to do so. Branded a terrorist state by the Americans, boxed in by US- sponsored governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, hated by nuclear-equipped Israel, unloved by Sunni Arab states, it has no natural allies. If Iran were to go nuclear, others in the region might do likewise. The Middle East would no longer be courted for its oil but feared for its potential to destroy the world. With oil at $67 a barrel they can afford the technology now, an investment for a future in which oil no longer means power.

Oil or no oil, western countries will not be able to dismiss Muslim sensibilities. Withdrawing from Iraq might reduce the pressure, but as long as American and European policy towards Israel is deemed unjust to the Palestinians there will be resentment and anger across the Muslim world.

The cartoon dispute highlights the particular problems faced by European countries, where radicalised sections of deprived Muslim communities focus their anger on such issues, and a defensive white middle class trumpets freedom of speech above restraint. Values are not universal: as Zeyno Baran points out in her essay “The Battle Within Islam” (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2005), the concept of freedom “will never be received as well as an approach stressing justice and dignity, concepts that resonate much more strongly in Muslim societies”. Maybe white European society could learn from these concepts. At times, they might be more important than freedom of speech.

Moreover, Europe has always been closely involved with the Islamic world, from the Moorish period in Spain through to French colonisation of North Africa and British dominion over what became Pakistan and Bangladesh. We cannot cut ourselves off, because our histories are interwoven and the children of our colonial adventures live in our societies. In his book The War for Muslim Minds, the French writer Gilles Kepel suggests that Europe is the real battlefield for Islamic thinking in the 21st century. It is here that young Muslims will decide whether to try to open more space in western society by participating in European politics, or to throw their energies into violent protest. Whatever the Americans decide about oil, we Europeans – Muslim and non-Muslim – have to live together. Separation is not an option.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News