Two territorial partitions of the Twentieth Century have profoundly affected the Muslim world. One was the partition of India that gave the Muslim world the miracle of a major new member.
The other was the partition of Palestine, which gave the Muslim world the challenge of a new adversary. Those two momentous events occurred within two consecutive years of each other - 1947 saw the birth of the Muslim state of Pakistan. In 1948 we witnessed the birth of the Jewish state of Israel. Islam in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries was never to be the same.
But where does the nuclear factor fit into this complex equation? The Muslims of South Asia lived to witness the nuclearisation of their much larger and powerful neighbour, India. The Muslims of the Middle East lived to witness the nuclearisation of their small but powerful neighbour, Israel. Over time, the question even arose whether India and Israel would conspire to prevent the nuclearisation of Pakistan.
In the Middle East, meanwhile, Israel on her own was exercising a veto over the nuclearisation of Iraq and the rest of the Arab world while, simultaneously, facilitating in the 1980s the nuclearisation of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Israel has also campaigned vigorously for international sanctions against Iran’s current nuclear programme.
This means that the coming of the nuclear age has been bad news for the Muslim world, at least for the time being. This has been compounded by the attitude of the United States. Washington turned the other way, if not actually helped, the nuclearisation of Israel. Yet Washington has been strongly opposed to ‘nuclear proliferation’ in the Muslim world. This was well before Saddam Hussein became America’s alleged possessor of ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ and Iran was accused of seeking nuclear weapons.
The nuclear shadow over the Muslim world probably began in the Middle East rather than in South Asia. The two partitions of 1947 and 1948 created conditions of military rivalry and technological competition in both South Asia and the Middle East, respectively. But technological change occurred much faster in Israel than in any other country in the two regions. To that extent, the nuclear specter began in Israel with consequences not only for the Muslim world but also for Africa.
Ancient Israel died two thousand years ago, only to be re-born in the full scientific glare of the nuclear age. Modern Israel was born within three years of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A Jewish political entity that had died two millennia previously in Biblical times was suddenly re-born and started blinking at the brightness of a ‘nuclear dawn.’
Within a single generation, the youthful Jewish state itself became a nuclear power. That was bad news for the Arabs and for their supporters. Without nuclear power, Israel’s conventional superiority could one day have been neutralised by Arab numerical preponderance.
But acquisition of nuclear weapons by Israel has helped to create a potentially permanent military stalemate. Even when the Arabs eventually become the equals of the Israelis in nuclear capacity, the principle of nuclear deterrence will work with even greater certainty than it did in the East-West conflict.
It just so happened that the state of Israel was created when a nuclear stalemate could conceivably ensure its survival. That is good for world Jewry, but it is not necessarily good news for the Muslim world if Jerusalem is forever lost to Muslim sovereignty. The USA and the USSR nearly went to war over Cuba in 1962. Will Israel and the Arabs in the future go to war over Jerusalem?
Mazrui teaches political science and African studies at State University, New York