Inside the Middle East: An Interview with Abdullah Al-Arian

Abdullah Al-Arian is Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He was a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, the author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt, co-editor of Jadaliyya’s Critical Currents in Islam webste, and a frequent contributor to Al-Jazeera English.

The Middle East is in turmoil. Perhaps you can contextualize the present. What’s a good place to start? Perhaps World War I and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire?

It depends on the issues we’re talking about, but I think on one level, if we’re really looking at the roots of a number of contemporary conflicts that we’re seeing today—and they’re all over the news—I think that we can find that the roots of them go back to the advent of modernity in the Middle East.

When we think of modernization and the process of modernity emerging within different contexts in the world, it’s usually seen as quite a positive thing, right?

Modernity in Europe and in the West generally was seen as a positive development—the emergence of the nation states, the emergence of modern governing institutions, and the quality of life that comes with modernization. But the process of modernization as it occurred in other societies—non-Western, non-European, non-white societies—was quite contentious.

When we look at the way modernization worked in the Middle East, quite often it was a process by which local institutions and practices were actively undermined by both imperial forces and by modernizers who were local to the region. The Ottoman Empire was experiencing tremendous political fragmentation, economic decline, the loss of the kind of prestige that it had enjoyed previously, and was attempting to adopt Western models of modernization. What this meant for a number of the people was that they had to drastically alter their way of life. It actually resulted in a number of weaker institutions protecting them against the abuses and exploitation that happened as a result of the imperial experience that begins in the 19th century and continues well after the First World War. So the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, and the advent of the Sykes-Picot arrangement in the Arab part of the Middle East, was a process by which the imperial relationships that had existed for decades were formalized in such a way that you saw the complete decline of a preexisting empire and the emergence of modern nation states built in the image of what a European nation state looked like.

For that reason we’ve seen, the building up of sectarian competition between different groups within society, some of whom had been in a position of ascendancy, and who all of a sudden found themselves in a position of weakness or who were propping up minority sectarian governments to ensure that European powers would have to maintain a long-lasting presence in the region or offering certain benefits that would allow them to continue economic exploitative policies and the ability to extract resources through their exploitation of these differences. So this was a very popular tactic, especially among the French in Syria and Lebanon, but we even see it among the British in Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan.

They were far more likely to exploit the populations and  to exclude them from governance. This is how, for instance, the role of military regimes, as we’ve seen in the past half century or so, beginning with the kind of revolts in Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere, and that those regimes, in turn excluded their societies from any role in governance. And I think that the phenomenon, at least over the last decade, if not longer, has been an attempt to challenge this is as much as possible.

Scholars like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis and journalists like Thomas Friedman frequently identify Islam as a problem and its rejection of modernity as being something that needs to be overcome. They talk about a “clash of civilizations,” that there’s some kind of East, which is never defined, versus the West—the West clearly being something good and positive and the East somewhat murky.

I think this is a product of the search for a new enemy in the aftermath of the Cold War. So although we see this in the 1980s, by the mid-1990s, there is a really strong discourse in U.S. policy-making circles as well as within popular culture that’s attempting to suggest that the new enemy in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s decline had to be Islamic civilization because it was the one force that was seemingly standing in the way of Western progress, secularism, modernity—all of those kinds of things like freedom, democracy. All of those noble projects were seen as being antithetical to the idea of a traditional Islamic society or system, let alone Islamist movements that are trying to pursue these as part of their political projects.

That debate was in many ways quite Orientalist. It was attempting to put forward a vision that was not realistic. When we consider the legacy of Western civilization, especially just in the 20th century, there is not much of a model to be implemented let alone imposed on other societies.

On the other hand, there’s certainly a caricature of what Islam or Islamic civilization is that emerges within these kinds of circles that I think is also quite problematic for a number of reasons. And for that reason we’ve seen an inability to try to actually accept or confront the internal issues within Muslim-majority societies on their own terms and instead trying to kind of impose a foreign vision on those societies in a way that’s been quite destructive during this period.

When we think about the major U.S. interests in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Second World War, it comes down to securing free and easy access to oil, protecting Israel, and attempting to maintain stability for the kind of economic relationships and arrangements that the U.S. relied on for establishing the kinds of economic markets that it needed. In order to do all three of those things, it needed to prop up what was known, at the time at least, as stable regimes. Stability came at the expense of the freedom of those societies to express themselves both politically, economically, socially, culturally, and also to be able to determine their own fate as nations. They simply had to maintain a direct line, at least during the Cold War, to one of the two superpowers. And then in the post-Cold War era it was either you’re with the U.S. or you’re simply a rogue, enemy state, as we’ve seen with countries like Iran and Syria and others as part of that kind of Bush discourse, Iraq, being the best example, given the predatory kind of occupation and assault that Iraq experienced both in the 1990s and then in the war after 9/11.

Maybe this is kind of an extension of that democratic peace theory. The idea is that if you get rid of these authoritarian leaders, this notion that they will be greeted as liberators, and that there is a natural alliance between the U.S. government and its aims and objectives in the region and the local populations of the Middle East. Which, of course, was not built on any real sense of what was happening within these societies or any understanding of the history, any understanding of the challenges that they’ve been facing and the fact, again, the U.S. had supported these regimes for a number of years.

The situation in Egypt over the last few years has certainly been one that is important for people to continue to watch, not only at moments of mass mobilization or major changes within the regime, but specifically as an authoritarian regime taking shape right now that is not a return to the Mubarak era, but is something altogether new. It’s trying to invent a new model of authoritarianism that in many ways is built around one function—and that is to prevent any future mass mobilization that could attempt to do to any future authoritarian ruler what happened to Mubarak.

For that reason it’s had to use an excessive amount of state violence that’s never been used before by any previous Egyptian dictator. We’ve seen this in particular with the Rabaa massacre that occurred in August 2013. We’ve seen it with the massive wave of repression in which over 40,000 people have been imprisoned. The entire leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood finds itself in prison, including Mohamed Morsi, who was the first and only democratically elected president of Egypt.

So despite what the Sisi regime may be trying to do to legitimize itself, including some of these kind of sham elections that are occurring within an incredibly repressive state in which not only is this state using and incorporating an incredible amount of violence and repressive violence against people, but there is even a kind of mob mindset, to the point where people can’t even speak freely in cafes without being turned over to the secret police by “concerned citizen” mobs that have been emerging and that have also employed the use of violence themselves.

Right now Egypt is passing through a very counterrevolutionary period that is built in part on the frustrations with the revolutionary transition. Again, when we go back to this idea that when Morsi was in power, that more and more it’s becoming clear that neither Morsi nor the Muslim Brotherhood generally ever really possessed the levers of power within Egypt, even within the year of his presidency. That from the moment that Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, it was really the military that continued to hold all the cards with regard to the transition. They actually formed the rules for that transition. The critics are quite correct to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood made the mistake of accepting the military’s assumption of leadership over that transitionary process in a way that simply didn’t happen, for instance, when we look at a case like Tunisia. In Egypt the military made sure that there would be limits to the amount of revolutionary change. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood adopted a far more reformist platform during a revolutionary moment. I think this was also part of its undoing as an organization. It continued to accept the rulings by a corrupted judiciary that had overseen some of the most corrupt elections in history and had the audacity to overturn the Egyptian parliament, that was the first freely elected parliament in Egyptian history, at least in the post-revolutionary, post-1952 history.

The U.S. saw in Egypt an important ally. Given the kind of legacy of the Nasser period and the fact that it was during the height of the Cold War a thorn in the side of U.S. aims in the region, there was certainly a sense that at a certain point in time the ability of Egypt to both mobilize not only its own population but even populations around the region, given the kind of charisma that Nasser excited, was something that had to not only be neutralized but also to a certain extent perhaps even co-opted in the opposite direction, that it was something that had to be mobilized, perhaps, in the service of a different kind of aim.

And I think that is there was a very strong degree of incentivization for Sadat, when he came in, to not only kind of join the U.S. orbit in the region but, fueled post-1973 by the booming oil prices, by tremendous benefits coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States that were going to infuse a certain amount of economic benefits and development to Egypt. And then, by the late 1970s, Egypt becomes the second leading recipient of U.S. aid, to the tune of about $2 billion a year, much of that going to the military and not to the Egyptian people. That was seen as a way to kind of continue to harness the power of the military as a force both economically within the country and also in terms of its political power as well. Even if it somewhat took a back seat to the emergence of a kind of civilian class of political operatives within the country, you still see that the military, kind of behind the scenes, has quite a large stake in the economic and political functioning of the country.

I think that this is a situation in which, because it maintains a direct line to the U.S., because it maintains the kind of economic and political clout that it has domestically within the country, it has enabled a situation in which Egypt’s foreign policy for the most part has been essentially outsourced to Washington. We’ve seen that in particular in its policies over the last couple of decades under the Mubarak regime, and now even increasingly in the last couple of years especially, the more that the military has begun to assert itself in the aftermath of Morsi’s overthrow.

In the aftermath of Morsi’s overthrow, the end of the revolutionary moment in Egypt, I do think that the U.S. was quite quick to assume business as usual in Egypt, to be right back in a position where it dealt directly with the military. No longer did it have any political forces or elements within civil society or within the revolutionary groups that existed in Egypt. It simply was not interested in continuing to promote those groups, or even freedom or democracy in Egypt. It immediately went back to this idea of, Well, we’ve always dealt with the military. Let’s go back to that kind of arrangement. As long as they’re attempting to secure the situation politically and economically and to stabilize the country, then that’s really, again, what U.S. interest is in the country.

A country that predates the uprising in Tahrir Square in Cairo in Egypt is Tunisia. That’s been held out as a kind of difference maker. Is Tunisia really too small to matter?

I do think that the stakes are certainly not as high in Tunisia, given that it doesn’t maintain the same kind of strategic interest for the rest of the region that Egypt does. In that sense, there hasn’t been as much foreign intervention. But that’s not to suggest that there hasn’t been any. I think certainly France continues to maintain a very strong interest in the outcomes in Tunisia. I do think that the Gulf States have also been quite wary of the idea of there being even a single successful Arab Spring case that could be used as a model for anyone else to follow and have also kind of played a somewhat obstructionist role in the events of Tunisia.

But I do think that the conditions were different enough domestically, given the fact that the military simply was not playing as crucial of a role as it was in Egypt, and that the Ennahda party also, for its part, being the leading Islamist movement within Tunisia, was poised to win the elections. And, of course, here’s another organization similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, that people feared would be very illiberal, very undemocratic, but has actually proven itself quite the contrary. In fact, they’ve conceded on a number of different points, everything from the role that sharia law would play in the new constitution, which they’ve decided that they didn’t need to include as part of the language of the constitution. They even, in the wake of a couple of political assassinations, decided to step down from the government to avert a crisis and actually allowed for the development of a coalition government. And then most recently, of course, they lost the parliamentary elections and had to concede that defeat to a coalition of parties that were precisely secular parties that were formed as a coalition precisely to oppose Ennahda. That was the main unifying element, and it incorporated a number of remnants of the old regime, including Sipsi himself, who is poised to become the head of the new government. So I think what we’re poised to see, at least in the coming months and years, with regard to Tunisia is whether there is going to be an inclusive attempt to allow all political forces to express themselves equally or whether there will be an attempt by the current government to try and actually suppress Ennahda party in the same way that the Muslim Brotherhood has been suppressed in Egypt, but perhaps not quite as aggressively, given the security situation in Tunisia, while it still includes some concerns, is not at the level that it reached in Egypt. And certainly there is not the same kind of security apparatus, given the role that, again, the military has played in Egypt and not in Tunisia. But I do think that Tunisia is still very much far from being a success story, that it’s still quite early. We have to be very patient. Most important thing people can do is to be continue to watch and pay attention to what’s happening with Tunisia’s democratic experience.

Talk about the appeal of political Islam?

Political Islam has a very long legacy in the region. It’s one of those questions that we hear a lot. Why would people in an age of modernity and secularism and all of that turn to their religion as a force for their political participation and involvement? I think there is actually quite a different question that people should ask. Because when we think about Islamic societies, when we think about the fact that Islam played a very determining role in people’s lives well into the early 20th century, the real question people should ask is, What’s happened to take people away from the thing that was governing their lives for many, many centuries? Beyond just even the abolishment of the caliphate with the end of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, when we look at the development of modern governing institutions, the idea of adopting systems of law that were imported, essentially, from the European experience and were not necessarily conducive to local conditions within other societies, there has been a kind of incongruence between what is seen as being the law as it emerged naturally in the kinds of practices and institutions that were governed in many ways by Islamic law or at least Islamic rules and principles to something that was altogether different and foreign. So there are a number of social movements that emerge, of course the Muslim Brotherhood being the most prominent of them. But they’re quite modern movements.

Political Islam is not, at least not in most cases, an idea of simply a return to the past. This isn’t trying to reclaim some lost golden age going back to the 7th century. This is also about a modern state-building project. These are groups who have accepted the idea of the nation state. They’ve accepted their identities as Egyptians, as Libyans, as Tunisians and decided that they simply want to pursue a modern state in the same way that we all know it everywhere else in the world but that has a religious influence within it that is able to inform the systems of governance, that is able to implement certain laws, certain rules that is in many ways in keeping with the sensibilities that people have always maintained. We’ve seen the rise of religious observance within Islamic societies going back to the 1970s. In some ways this was a reaction to the disillusionment with the kind of secular Arab nationalist, radical leftist ideologies of the 1950s and 1960s that resulted in the defeat in 1967, in which Arab lands in Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Jordan were occupied. And there was a sense that the Nasserist project that he built for a number of years had failed. It was in that kind of aftermath.

And then another interesting development that happens at the same time is that with the rise of the wealthy Gulf States in the 1970s you do see an exportation of a particular kind of political Islam that is far more conservative, that is far more influenced by the kind of Wahhabist ideology in such a way that it does tend to make its impact felt. This is why you get the rise of Salafi groups, for instance, in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow not only had to contend with nonreligious, secular groups and parties but also with the emergence of a far more conservative political Islamic movement in the form of the Salafis, who formed their own political party and decided that they also wanted to take part in the shaping of the new, post-revolutionary Egypt. So there are a number of different trends, and they appeal to different segments of society, primarily depending in part on socioeconomic background, but also depending on things like geographic location. There are a lot of factors that should be taken into consideration when we think about the appeal of Islamist politics across these societies.

Do you distinguish between Wahhabism and Salafism?

Salafism, very broadly, is a term that refers to the idea of looking to the past for an example, so looking to the model of the early generation of Muslims, but not necessarily to be accepted literally. There are some literalist Salafis, many of whom are Wahhabis. The Wahhabi movement tends to be far more conservative in its idea of trying to emulate a particular historical model, whereas what I would consider modernist Salafis are groups like the original Muslim Brotherhood, that comes about to say, Well, we believe that the example of the early Muslim commnities going back many centuries is quite instructive, but it has to be adapted to a modern setting, which means we have to be quite liberal in our ability to reinterpret that tradition in a modern context and be able to adapt it to the local challenges and the contemporary challenges that our societies face. So I think this is where you see a big difference between a modernist Salafi and a Wahhabi or literalist Salafi.

And what is jihad?

Jihad is an Islamic term that simply refers to struggle. It can be pursued in a very wide variety of ways, including everything from the idea of people trying to struggle economically to help their families, people struggling to obtain education, people struggling to survive in everyday life, people who are trying to do good both for themselves and for others and for society around them. It is all considered part of that struggle. Of course, the context in which we hear it quite often is the fact that it has also tended to incorporate an element of a militant struggle as well against injustice. But I think that the traditional interpretation of it has tended to be quite defensive in nature, so this notion of an offensive jihad is not one that has real deep historical roots. It is not simply part of the Islamic tradition, at least in the way that it emerged in the earlier period.

There are also a number of other difficulties with the idea of when to declare or how to actually enact something along those lines, including the idea of having some kind of institutional leadership for the Muslim community, which simply doesn’t exist in the modern age. When you don’t have a recognized leader, when it’s individual groups and individual people who are attempting to pursue jihad as kind of their own self-styled attempt to establish some kind of legitimacy for whatever political goals or political ambitions or struggles that they’re trying to pursue, in many ways it is a kind of abuse of the term that we’ve seen being employed quite loosely. I think that’s part of the so-called crisis of authority that people have heard about, that because there is no individual or institution that’s in a position to actually be able to make use of that term, that we’ve seen a number of highly unqualified individuals and groups attempting to employ it.

How do you define fundamentalism in the Islamic context?

Fundamentalism actually is a term that emerges primarily referring to Christian groups in the 19th century, but it eventually becomes used as really a moniker for the revivalist Islamist movements of the 20th century and even into the 21st century. I think it very loosely refers to people who are attempting to adopt some kind of historical model for the employment of religious principles. Quite often this is associated with trying to implement the sharia law, so looking back at the way that it was implemented historically and attempting to simply kind of copy and paste that system in a modern context. And then you have more sophisticated attempts by people who you might consider fundamentalists who are trying to adapt it in a way that maintains the essence or the spirit of Islamic law but without actually applying the letter of the law. This is a far more constructive process, attempting to construct a new system of law that incorporates the fundamentals of the faith but without having to adhere to the letter of it.

There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. The Sunnis comprise about 90 percent of the Muslim population. The remaining 10 percent is Shi’a. What distinguishes them and what is the tension that exists?

This is a historical question that goes back to the very early period of the Muslim community. In the aftermath of the death of The Prophet Muhammad, who, of course, founds the religion of Islam but also founded something of a state system through which it’s going to be applied by his successors, you get a dispute in terms of a crisis of leadership within the community. You have disputes over who should be allowed to lead the community, with the Sunnis, quite broadly, believing that as long as you achieve a consensus around people who are noted to have been the close companions of The Prophet, were known to be honorable people, were known to be good leaders, that they simply could be elected by some kind of internal process through some sort of consultation and simply elect a leader to succeed The Prophet.

Whereas there was another opinion that saw that The Prophet didn’t have sons but he had grandsons. He also had a son-in-law and a cousin, in Ali, who was seen as kind of the rightful successor to The Prophet. So it was really a very early political crisis, a very early question of succession that over time historically takes on far deeper implications because of the way that the communities who believed in what you might consider a minority position, at least, have been repressed, have been subjected, obviously, to a number of discriminations over the years and have seen a very different kind of political philosophy and theology, and perhaps even a system of law, in terms of the way that it’s developed.

So what does all that mean, this history, for the contemporary context? What it means is that because you’ve had these differences, that they’ve now played themselves out in a way that transcends the very basic kind of philosophical, theological, religious, historical arguments. This has now become something more about resource allocation, the allocation of power politically. In a number of contexts in which you have strong populations of both Sunni and Shi’a majorities and minorities—in places like Bahrain, or Iraq, or Pakistan—in a number of different countries where you see these kind of things play out, it’s quite often a direct result and consequence of very modern problems.

Sectarianism is not something that has very deep historical roots in the sense of people who say, Oh, well, they’ve just been killing each other for thousands of years, and they’re going to keep doing that. It’s actually something that was constructed in this process of modernization: that as we establish states, as we establish the concept of citizenship, there has to be an allocation of power, an allocation of economic privilege, quite often by external powers. So, for instance, the French in Lebanon found it quite useful, both in Lebanon and in Syria, actually, to be able to empower political minorities at the expense of majorities. So in that sense it’s not simply about Sunnis and Shi’a. It’s about any kind of groups, whether they’re Alawites, whether they’re Maronite Christians. There are a number of different groups, of course, that end up being part of this game of the redistribution of power after centuries of there being a particular arrangement.

So there was a decline of some historic elites, there was an emergence of new elites, with things, like, for instance, the institution of the military in Syria. As the modern military was being designed and developed and constructed, that there was a sense that it was not a very desirable place to go for a number of the Sunni elites, who would much rather enjoy other kinds of opportunities within society because of the kind of privileged status that they maintained. But what this meant was that as the Alawite minority within Syria entered the military in increasing numbers, by the time there was a military coup in Syria and the takeover of the state by the army, all of a sudden you had this critical mass of a minority religious sect that was in a position of state power, being able to actually enact its policies and enact its new vision for the state. We see this in particular, of course, with the Assad regime, both the father and the son.

So a number of these things that seem on the surface to be quite sectarian are actually about something far deeper, and perhaps even far more simply, which is the allocation of power.

Are Alawites Shi’a? 

The Alawites are one of the different sects within Shi’ism. Iran is the largest Shi’a country, followed by Iraq. Lebanon has 40 percent Shi’a population, maybe even more. There hasn’t been a census there since the early 1930s. Bahrain has a Shi’a majority. Why are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates leading this charge against this arc of Shi’a states?

We have to again place it in the context of regional competition. I don’t think that this is necessarily a question of simply Sunni-Shi’a competition. This is a competition between countries that want to have a greater role in dictating the terms of the arrangements both internally among countries in the region and also externally in terms of their relationship with the powers outside of the region. In that sense I would even place this in the context of the Saudi policy toward the Arab Spring generally. They’ve opposed it in Egypt, they’ve opposed it in Tunisia, they’ve opposed it in a number of countries where there wasn’t a Sunni-Shi’a kind of question. It was simply any country that maintains a very different philosophical, ideological, and religious outlook than the sort of Saudi exported brand of Islam, but also of foreign policy for the region I think was always seen as a threat.

So at the moment when you see the emergence of a new Iran after the revolution in the 1970s, it was seen as being this kind of rogue player that was now going to try to impose a new vision for the rest of the region. Perhaps there was a fear that it was going to export that revolution to other sensitive locations that do maintain very large, if not majority, Shi’a populations. And we’ve certainly seen Iran, of course, attempts to flex its muscles, so to speak, with Iraq, with Lebanon, with Bahrain, with a number of other places. So that plays into the hands of these deep fears by the Saudi ruling family and the other Gulf States. And for their part, they’ve attempted to do essentially the same thing: They’ve attempted to export the Wahhabi ideology to a number of different places, they’ve attempted to kind of impact the social and cultural landscapes of a number of different states if not the actual, outright political processes in these places. So this is part of a much deeper political game as opposed to it being simply a question of differing religious philosophies or ideas.

What are the origins and what explains the rise of the Islamic State, aka ISIS and ISIL?

A movement like this does not emerge in a vacuum; it emerges as a result of a number of different factors, both historical as well as contemporary. So I would say that there are three different legacies that we have to look to to explain the rise of something like ISIS.

On the one hand, the colonial legacy is quite important. I think we do have to go back to that early period after the First World War with the drawing up of these borders. There is something that’s become very deeply seated, part of the kind of psyche of the different populations of the region. There is a reason that ISIS tends to kind of play up this idea that they’re going to erase the Sykes-Picot borders that were drawn up by the French and the British between Syria and Iraq, among other places, to suggest that they believe these borders were an artificial construction, that these are not natural borders, and that these nation states have to be erased because they are the source of a number of evils and problems in the region. So that legacy has to be acknowledged at some level.

But it’s not the only one. With the emergence of the post-colonial states, there is the legacy of severe repression and authoritarianism. When we sit and think about, for instance, even just the torture report, we kind of stop when we think about the fact that this was a really awful thing, and we can condemn it and say it was so grotesque to read. But think about the legacy of those repressive tactics, not just by the CIA in this case but by 50 years of authoritarian rule, where people were condemned to dungeons both in Iraq and in Syria for years and years and years. When people would try to rise up or speak up or express any kind of free thought, this is the kind of abuse that they would be subjected to. So I think that is one of the real problems with the legacy of authoritarianism. People think by having a popular mobilization like we had with the Arab Spring that you’re somehow going to erase 50 or 60 years of severe repressive tactics. That kind of thing doesn’t get removed overnight.

So we’re still suffering the effects of this idea that tens of millions of people were disenfranchised, had absolutely no role in shaping the future of their country. Now all of a sudden you’re finding that with any opening, with any kind of vacuum that emerges, people are going to take advantage of that. But what are the tools that they have at their disposal? In some places there was a very brief opening to actually be able to engage in nonviolent, peaceful mobilization and then be able to turn that into elections and have some sort of democratic process. Well, that luxury, first of all, didn’t exist for very long, in very many places. We’ve seen especially Egypt being the kind of best case study for that. And countries like Tunisia tend to be somewhat the exception. Everywhere else it’s turned into something of a violent, militant confrontation between various forces and factions within these societies that are attempting to confront a very murky political situation, confront the rise of external powers that are attempting to really influence and impact the situation on the ground, and, of course, using the kinds of language that they inherited from this legacy of authoritarianism. I think this is why you see the severity of the tactics. The only difference is that Saddam Hussein or Hafez or Bashar al-Assad would carry out their executions in dungeons no one would see, let alone videotape, as opposed to ISIS, that’s doing it in public squares.

The third legacy that is quite important that has to be mentioned here, of course, is the legacy of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. This is something that is directly happening on the heels of the 2003 invasion. The dissolution of the Baath Party. The idea that you’ve allowed the democratic process that unfolded to be a zero-sum game, with winners and then spoilers on the other end. Creating this class of disaffected Sunnis within Iraq, both people who were part of that political elite, people who were part of Saddam’s army, and also the Sunni tribes that exist in other regions of the country, that became more obstructionist as opposed to actually being partners in the emergence of the new Iraq, played an incredibly destructive role for stability in the country and in turn has also led to the rise of people who would be sympathetic to the aims of a group that seeks to completely reject the emerging political order and establish something altogether new.

For that reason, it’s no coincidence that, as we’ve read from report after report in the press, that the bulk of the leadership of the Islamic State are people who at some point either spent time in U.S. prisons during the occupation, who were previously, perhaps, part of the Baathist regime, again, a very secular, nonreligious regime. So in that sense it seems that the use of Islam as a kind of rallying cry is quite opportunistic. Not to say that the ideology doesn’t matter. It certainly does, because it has very broad appeal not only within Iraq and Syria but even more broadly, as we’ve seen, with its appeal to disaffected youth populations in Europe and to a lesser extent in other parts of the West. But all of this I think is a result of this kind of uncertainty that’s been developed and a number of the very destructive policies that you can go back and trace through the century or just trace to the last 10 years.

U.S. policy in Iraq post-invasion under Paul Bremer, who was a de facto viceroy, certainly contributed to the strengthening of sectarianism within the society, recruiting different groups to oppose those who were rebelling against the occupation. And then you had the al-Maliki regime, which followed. It was openly sectarian, very close to Iran as well.

Speaking of Iran and ISIS, it seems the U.S. and Iran are on the same page.

This has been to a certain extent the case for some time. This isn’t the first time that the U.S. and Iran have actually found common interests in the region. Think back to the post-9/11 era, the invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban were an extreme thorn in the side of Iran, and they were quite happy for the U.S. to have gotten rid of the Taliban. I think we’ve seen a kind of convergence of interests on a number of different questions, which is what makes the supposed clash between the U.S. and Iran seem all the more problematic to a certain extent, because it’s built on a particular set of issues, while at the same time there are far more issues that you might actually find that the U.S. has in common with Iran, in particular with the rise of this wave of so-called Sunni extremism in the region.

So what we’ve seen more recently is that Iran, of course, is just as concerned. The complete breakdown of any kind of centralized state power in segments of Iraq is something that for a country that’s bordering it is going to be of huge concern. So Iran, although it’s not officially part of this haphazard coalition that’s been formed to fight ISIS, that even includes countries that are actually responsible for the rise of ISIS in the first place, like Saudi Arabia and others, is to a certain extent at least, relieved that some action is being taken, even if it continues to generally oppose U.S. presence in the region and its continued presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

It seems that the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia is really the elephant in the closet that is not discussed. Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of radical fundamentalism. And speaking of beheadings, they’re almost routine in Saudi Arabia. The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is something that, for whatever reason, while it gets a tremendous amount of coverage by human rights groups and watch groups, doesn’t get the same kind of condemnation from the U.S.

I think that’s by virtue, again, of the idea that as long as there’s an alignment of interests, there is a tendency to overlook the internal abuses that take place. And even externally now.We’ve seen this notion that Saudi Arabia has attempted to fund a number of the more extreme militant groups in Syria in its support for that civil conflict over last few years. And as a result, it’s actually empowered a number of militias at the expense of perhaps some of the more moderate ones that are far more focused on opposing the Assad regime without necessarily creating an extremist religious state in its place. But instead, because of all the resources that were being diverted to these other groups, that’s how you get the rise of a group like ISIS.

This occurs on a number of levels, both in terms of official Saudi state policy, but also independently from wealthy individuals and benefactors, people who are attempting to be a part of this movement.

On that score, there is enough of a plausible deniability. The official Saudi line is that they oppose ISIS and they are going to be part of this coalition. The U.S. has relied on those kinds of assurances and pledges to form the kind of coalition that we’ve seen and to continue to consider Saudi Arabia part of its alliance, even though it’s acted quite destructively when we think about its role in the Egyptian coup, both in propping up the Sisi regime but also in promoting the very strongly counterrevolutionary mechanisms and measures that have been taken throughout the region over the last three years.

Talk about the Kurds. They are dispersed among four countries. Can they realize their goal of sovereignty?

If we’re looking specifically at the question of sovereignty, to a certain extent the Kurdish population of northern Iraq has certainly accomplished that. Its fate has been far different from that of the rest of Iraq when we consider the trajectory of the population going back to the post-2003 U.S. invasion and occupation. It’s enjoyed quite a bit of autonomy, economic development, investment. It’s being held up as something of a new model of neoliberal economic development that’s happened at a very rapid pace when we look specifically at the region surrounding it in northern Iraq.

But when we think in terms of statehood, that’s still a question that’s a bit far off, sovereignty being different, necessarily, than when we think about the question of statehood, let alone the incorporation of the Kurdish populations that, as you mentioned, exist in other parts of the region. In Turkey, for instance, that’s considered kind of a red line for the Turkish government, that they’re not going to entertain any notion of offering sovereignty let alone something even resembling statehood for the population there. And the same is true in Syria and in Iran as well.

And again, this is where it becomes really interesting when we think back to this question of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Although we all could agree that these are all artificial borders, that they’ve all been constructed, that they were all devised by imperial powers looking after their own interests and had nothing to do with the reality on the ground, and as a result we end up with a nation that’s spread across many different borders, the other thing that we have to concede a little bit is the fact that even though they start off artificially, that in time these things take on a life of their own.

It’s really difficult, nearly impossible to a certain extent, to simply erase borders and to go back to some point in history, because then it becomes kind of an arbitrary designation. We’ve had over a century of looking at these questions and seeing the kinds of developments that have happened have affirmed a new reality, so to speak, that’s very difficult to simply depart from.

I think this is actually the major challenge that a group like this extremely ambitious Islamic State is facing, the fact that it’s not so simple to just erase the borders and establish something in its place. In that sense I don’t know that they enjoy, necessarily, that much sympathy for this project, when there are people who do consider themselves Iraqi or Syrian above all and don’t see themselves being a part of some new, makeshift national identity, especially one that’s being put forward by a group that is responsible for so many atrocities, so much violence, and such extremist views as we’ve seen. For that reason it hasn’t enjoyed the kind of appeal among broader segments of these societies.

You were born in North Carolina, grew up in Florida, went to Duke where you are now teaching. What level of information about the Middle East and its history did you find among your peers?

Being in the U.S. during this period has been quite interesting for a number of reasons. On the one hand, there is a huge incongruence between the American government and American society on a number of these questions. I think that for the most part people in the U.S. really do want to see the promotion of a far more peaceful approach to foreign policy that is not simply laden with conflict and using force as such an early option, let alone the kind of imperial policies that have been pursued, the kind exploitation of resources and things along those lines. That they do believe in this idea of an American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. does have a lot to offer in terms of positive, both in terms of its democratic practices, its promotion of freedom. These kinds of things are idealized in the American imagination.

The difficulty and the disparity comes with people once they recognize the fact that that’s not happening as a matter of course or as a matter of policy by the U.S. What is there to do about it? How do we continue to be engaged at a time when essentially as a kind of consequence of empire necessarily citizens tend to forfeit their right to have any real power in helping to shape foreign policy. I think that that’s one of those things that’s happened. Any domestic issue for the most part is open to discussion and negotiation as part of the kind of national political conversation. Well, these things happen behind closed doors, the American people don’t understand.

There is a kind of belittling effect that takes place in which people aren’t necessarily seen as equipped with the right kind of information to be able to pursue those discussions, and they’ve kind of accepted the fact that no one is going to treat them like adults, coming from at least the policy-making community. The Administration doesn’t put these things up for some kind of a referendum in terms of should we pursue this course of action in this or that country or this kind of policy in this region. I think that that’s been the really discouraging and disheartening thing to go witness over the years.

But I do think that there are some encouraging signs. There is an increasingly informed public that I’ve noticed. We’ve seen it with everything from the events of the last year, the conflict in Gaza over the summer, where all of a sudden you had contending narratives. For almost the first time, you really had the emergence of something to parallel the so-called mainstream media—the emergence of new sources of information, people who are kind of reporting for new outlets that are perhaps more online based, people kind of giving up the relics of the TV networks. And even the TV networks, as we saw with NBC News, had to contend with the fact that there was going to be a public backlash for its decision to pull out one of its correspondents at a time when he was humanizing the Palestinian experience in Gaza. There was a backlash to that, and eventually he had to be restored to his post in Gaza. The conversation is certainly shifting, not just on that issue but on a number of different issues. In spite of the fact that we’ve seen a tremendous amount of tragic headlines and the kind of renewed rise of an Islamophobic discourse coming from certain segments within both the policy-making apparatus as well as within popular culture, there has been a more vigorous response to it this time than perhaps what we saw after 9/11.

What can people do?

The most important thing—and this is something that maybe stems from my career as both as someone who writes and someone who teaches—is for people to remain well informed. The biggest leaders have at their disposal when they’re attempting to employ these kinds of unpopular policies is the ignorance of others in the broader population. So we need to continue to have these kinds of discussions publicly, be able to openly discuss the issues as they’re going on in the region, and in particular the role that the U.S. plays, and do so in a very well-informed fashion, by keeping up with the events as they’re happening, even at a time when there seems to be a lull.

For example, in Egypt, where all of a sudden the coup seems to have been established, we’re not seeing the kind of everyday front-page headlines, but it’s important to keep tabs on what’s happening there, especially as the human rights abuses continue to take place under the cover of the fact that they’re not being covered as much anymore. And by the same token, in Tunisia, where it’s not enough just to say, Well, they got rid of their dictator and they had some elections. That’s great. Let’s just pat ourselves on the back and move on. We have to kind of continue to be vigilant about making sure that democratic practices are going to be upheld there at a time when there are strong forces that are attempting to undermine that process there and elsewhere.

And then to continue to hold our officials to account by continuing to discuss and debate with them and make sure that they are able to justify the kinds of decisions that they make. Again, for someone like the Secretary of State to continue to suggest that a dictator like Sisi is somehow restoring democracy is quite shameful. When you think about the case of someone like Muhammad Sultan, who is a U.S. citizen, Ohio State student, who has been on hunger strike in Sisi’s dungeons for nearly a year, what’s being done to demand his release, to demand that he be freed? Given the fact that he hasn’t been actually convicted of a crime, the fact that he continues to languish in prison as a U.S. citizen, I think it’s on all of us to kind of get involved with these kinds of cases as they emerge.



David Barsamian is a radio broadcaster, writer, and the founder and director of Alternative Radio, a Boulder, Colorado-based syndicated weekly talk program heard on some 150 radio stations in various countries.