WE may scoff at the idea that the Olympic Games have anything to do with the "endeavor to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace," as the Olympic charter enshrines as its ideal. But at least nations across the world were able to put aside differences for two weeks of friendly competition in Vancouver.
A mundane achievement, perhaps, but it's one that's beyond the grasp of the Islamic world. The Islamic Solidarity Games, the Olympics of the Muslim world, which were to be held in Iran in April, have been called off by the Arab states because Tehran inscribed "Persian Gulf" on the tournament's official logo and medals.
It's a small but telling controversy. It puts the lie to the idea of the Islamic world as a bloc united by religious values that are hostile to the West. It also gives clues as to how the United States and its allies should handle two of their most urgent foreign policy matters: the Iranian nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is not the first time that Arabs have challenged the internationally accepted name of the waterway that separates Persia (or Iran, as it has been called since 1935) from the Arabian Peninsula. Pan-Arabist thought — which dominated Arab political life for most of the 20th century — insisted on the creation of a unified vast empire "from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arab Gulf," provoking sharp confrontations with Iran since the late 1960s.
The Islamic regime in Tehran, which came to power in 1979 dismissing nationalism as an imperialist plot aimed at weakening the worldwide Muslim community (or umma), initially displayed less interest in the gulf's Persian identity than in the spread of its Islamist message. "The Iranian revolution is not exclusively that of Iran, because Islam does not belong to any particular people," insisted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "The struggle will continue until the calls 'there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah' are echoed all over the world."
Yet like Stalin, who responded to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 by urging his people to fight for the motherland rather than for the Communist ideals with which they had been indoctrinated, Khomeini reverted to nationalist rhetoric to rally his subjects after the Iraqi invasion of 1980. He also used the war to justify a string of military and diplomatic actions against the smaller Arab states like Qatar and Kuwait aimed at asserting Iran's supremacy in the gulf.
In this history of a single body of water, one sees a perfect example of the so-called Islamic Paradox that dates from the seventh century. For although the Prophet Muhammad took great pains to underscore the equality of all believers regardless of ethnicity, categorically forbidding any fighting among the believers, his precepts have been constantly and blatantly violated.
It took a mere 24 years after the Prophet's death for the head of the universal Islamic community, the caliph Uthman, to be murdered by political rivals. This opened the floodgates to incessant infighting within the House of Islam, which has never ceased. Likewise, there has been no overarching Islamic solidarity transcending the multitude of parochial loyalties — to one's clan, tribe, village, family or nation. Thus, for example, not only do Arabs consider themselves superior to all other Muslims, but inhabitants of Hijaz, the northwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula and Islam's birthplace, regard themselves the only true Arabs, and tend to be highly disparaging of all other Arabic-speaking communities.
Nor, for that matter, has the House of Islam ever formed a unified front vis-à-vis the House of War (as Muslims call the rest of the world). Even during the Crusades, the supposed height of the "clash of civilizations," Christian and Muslim rulers freely collaborated across the religious divide, often finding themselves aligned with members of the rival religion against their co-religionists. While the legendary Saladin himself was busy eradicating the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, for example, he was closely aligned with the Byzantine Empire, the foremost representative of Christendom's claim to universalism.