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Thursday, March 25, 1999 Published at 17:28 GMT


World: Middle East

Kosovo divides Muslim world

Some wonder what the bombing will really achieve

By Roger Hardy and Jim Muir

In the Arab and Muslim world, the conflict in Kosovo - like the earlier war in Bosnia - has strong religious overtones.

Kosovo: Special Report
Inevitably, their sympathies are with the Muslim Kosovo Albanians struggling against the Christian Serbs.

"For me, Kosovo is as important as Bosnia," says Heba Rauf Ezzat, a young Islamist in Cairo. Egyptians are following the issue closely in the media.

But she adds that many Muslims feel powerless to influence the course of events.

Is the West serious?

As they watch the escalation of the current crisis, Muslims are reminded of Western intervention elsewhere - in Iraq, for example.

And just as there's scepticism about Western policy in the Middle East, so there are doubts over what bombing in Kosovo will achieve in the long run.

Ahmed Versi is the editor of Muslim News, a newspaper for British Muslims. He worries that if the West bombs the Serbs and then withdraws, the Kosovo Albanians will be left to the mercy of a vengeful Serbia.

He also points out that, so far, the Serbs have not allowed Muslim aid agencies to go into Kosovo.

Some individual Muslim volunteers have got in, he says, but the tightening of Kosovo's borders has made this increasingly difficult.

The Bosnian conflict became a burning issue in the Muslim world. Muslims donated money, signed up as volunteers and put pressure on their governments to take an active stand - for example, through the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the main body bringing together the countries of the Muslim world.

So far, the Kosovo issue is not mobilising Muslim opinion to the same extent.

But as the crisis unfolds, Muslims are watching it closely. Even if they are thousands of miles away from the Balkans, they see the issue as an important test for Nato and the West.

Middle East critics

But that has not meant that the Nato action against Yugoslavia has been without its critics in the Middle East.

It's only three months since Iraq was subjected to a pounding very similar to that being metered out to Yugoslavia and Middle East reaction to what's happening now is divided along almost identical lines.

For some, hostility to the sight of the Western powers once again taking on the role of global enforces, outweighs a strong regional tendency to sympathise with the Kosovo Muslims.

Foremost in that category is Iraq itself. It strongly condemned the strikes on the Serbs saying they had no legitimacy from the Security Council.

The official Iraqi newspaper, al-Thawra, quoted Saddam Hussein as saying that the weapons the West uses to scare to world, are not capable of changing anything.

It added that Slobodan Milosevic was following Saddam's example in standing up to the Americans.

Tyrants

Libya and Algeria also condemned the Nato strikes. But press opinion in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both bitterly hostile to Baghdad, bracketed the Yugoslav and Iraqi leaders together as like-minded tyrants who had plunged their respective regions into turmoil and left Nato no choice but to intervene.

Expressing what is probably the majority view, the Arab League blamed Belgrade for oppressing the Kosovo Albanians and refusing to sign the peace agreement.

Iran also held the Yugoslav leadership responsible while at the same time denouncing the Nato action as something that would aggravate tensions and complicate the situation.



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