Find good non-ISIS Sunnis to help build peace

Today, I'll talk about the Paris attacks, but before I do, I want to share two news stories here, in case you missed them: The first calf to come from a cloned camel was born at a research centre in Dubai, and a local taxi start-up is taking on Uber in the Arab world.

You may think that these emirates start-ups - cloning camels and cabs - have nothing to do with Paris, but they do. Bear with me.

A newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, The National, quoted Dr Ali Ridha Al Hashimi, of the Reproductive Biotechnology Centre in Dubai, who announced that "Injaz, the world's first cloned camel, gave birth to a healthy female calf weighing about 38kg on Nov 2. Injaz, whose name means 'achievement' in Arabic, was cloned in 2009 from the ovarian cells of a dead camel".

Previously, when the pregnancy was disclosed, the centre's scientific director, Dr Nisar Wani, said: "This will prove cloned camels are fertile and can reproduce the same as naturally produced camels."

Also last week, a hot Arab ride-sharing start-up, Careem.com, raised US$60 million (S$85 million) more in venture financing to take on Uber in the Arab world, using technology that allows for pre-booking of vehicles through its mobile app - ideal for Saudi Arabia where women cannot drive and need chauffeurs to take them and their kids everywhere.

So, about 1,000 miles south of the Islamic State start-up in Iraq and Syria - where Islamists are using technology to spawn disruption on a massive scale - another group of Muslims (and non-Muslims) in another Arab country are disrupting the world of camels and cabs.

The message? The context within which Arabs and Muslims live their lives really matters. And in too many places, they've had only two choices - Sisi or ISIS - the iron fist of generals, like Egypt's President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who is trying to stifle all dissent, or the ISIS madness that says the only way forward is to take the Arab-Muslim world backwards.

Fortunately, there is a third way: The autocracies, monarchies and a few frail democracies that have invested in their people and created islands of decency - Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Morocco and the UAE - where more young Arabs and Muslims can realise their full potential and build their dignity by disrupting camels and cabs, not Paris and Beirut.

For me, the big strategic question in Iraq and Syria is: What would it take to uproot ISIS and create a Sunni island of decency in its place? For starters, that requires an honest assessment of how big the challenge is.

Sixty years ago, Asian dictators told their people in effect: "I am going to take away your freedom, but give you the best education, export-led economics and infrastructure that money can buy. And in a half-century, you'll build a middle class that will gradually take your freedom back."

In the Arab world, 60 years ago, dictators told their people, in effect: "I am going to take away your freedom and give you the Arab-Israeli conflict, a shiny object to distract you from my corruption and predation." That difference, 60 years later, has produced the Asian economic miracle and fuelled the Arab civilisational meltdown or disorder in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq.

Given that, I believe the US foreign policy out here should progress as follows: Where there is disorder, help create order, because without order, nothing good can happen. I will take Sisi over the Muslim Brotherhood. But where there is order, we need to push for it to become more decent and forward-looking. That is where Sisi is failing: His vision is just order for order's sake, with no positive slope. Where there is decent order, like in the UAE, Jordan or Kurdistan, encourage it to gradually become more open and constitutional. And where there is constitutional order, as in Tunisia, protect it like a rare flower.

An Iraqi friend with family still in ISIS-controlled Mosul tells me that President Barack Obama's stepped-up bombing and special operations with the Kurds are hurting ISIS a lot.

It was in part to disguise this that ISIS unleashed its death parade in Paris. But these ISIS guys are smart and still very dangerous. I'd support more bombing and special ops to further weaken and contain them.

But before we go beyond that, we need to face this fact: To sustainably defeat bad ISIS Sunnis, you need good non-ISIS Sunnis to create an island of decency in their place. And right now, alas, finding and strengthening good non-ISIS Sunnis is the second priority of all the neighbours.

Turkey cares more about defeating Kurds; Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies care more about defeating Iran and its proxies in Iraq, Yemen and Syria; Qatar cares more about promoting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and annoying Saudi Arabia; Iran cares more about protecting Shi'ites in Iraq and Syria than creating a space for decent Sunnis to thrive; and many of the non-ISIS Sunni activists in Syria and Iraq are still Islamists - and they're not going away. How do you weave a decent carpet from these threads?

I don't know - and until I do, I'd be cautious about going far beyond what we're already doing. Paris may be totally different today. The Middle East is not.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2015, with the headline 'Find good non-ISIS Sunnis to help build peace'. Print Edition | Subscribe