Tsvi Bisk is an independent futurist, social researcher, and strategy planning consultant He is the director of the Center for Strategic Futuristic Thinking and the founder and director of the Strategic Educational Planning Institute. For more than 20 years, he was a senior associate of the Beit Berl Institute (the research and education arm of the Israel Labor Movement). Bisk is the author of five books, and has published more than one hundred essays and articles in English and Hebrew in a variety of publications.
Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to ‘On the Issues.’ My guest today is Tsvi Bisk, director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking and author of the book ‘The Suicide of the Jews’. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.
ABM: So anyway no, I mean it’s not like a formality, but we can talk about anything you want. But let’s talk about your book. Finally I read it like I said, and let’s begin with the issue with the premise. And I think you made a very, very strong case that current Israeli policies and the Jewish experience in general that we are going through right now could lead eventually to the extermination of what you call the suicide of the Jews. And that unless something—
Tsvi Bisk: It won’t be an extermination.
ABM: No, no ex—
TB: It’ll be an erosion that is like—the centrality of Israel to the Jewish experience since the creation of the state, I think is self-evident. I mean, even the so-called anti-Zionists are anti-Zionist Jews in terms of Zionism.
TB: I mean they wouldn’t have an identity. It’s kind of ironic, but I just think that if I look at our present policy—look, I put it this way. I think that the settler movement and the settler culture and the way the settler culture has influenced Israeli political discourse and Jewish political discourse and social discourse, is more dangerous to the future of Israel than the Iranian bomb.
ABM: Yeah, I agree. I just wanted you to tell me, how do you see that? I mean, what would eventually—the settler movement certainly is going to contribute to that. How do you see that progressing in that direction? Because you are futuristic.
TB: OK. I say to people [who] say ‘we can defeat the Palestinians.’ I say, that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of the Palestinians giving up. I’m afraid of the Palestinians saying, ‘OK, we no longer want a Palestinian state. We’re not going to get it.’
ABM: Well they’re already saying that.
TB: Yeah. Over 50 percent by the way are saying one state. And then if it becomes One Man, One Vote, like in South Africa, then it’s just a matter of time. We cannot fight that. We cannot say, ‘we can be a democracy,’ and deprive over half the people or half the people or even 40 percent of the people occupying the land of Israel of their civil rights. There’s no such thing. You know, Lincoln said ‘we can’t be a country half-slave and half-free. We’ll either be all-slave or all-free.’ That was why he was against slavery. You can’t be a country that’s half democratic and half non-democratic. You’re either one or the other. And that means constitutionalist protections in terms of what modern democracy means. Modern democracy—when we say democracy, we mean constitutionalist democracy.
ABM: Exactly, yeah.
TB: We don’t mean majoritarian democracy. Hitler was a majoritarian democrat—he was elected democratically, he formed his coalition democratically. You can even say that Stalin was a totalitarian democrat. Most people supported him. People forget that. Most people support Castro in Cuba. Now you could say, ‘yeah, they were brainwashed because, yeah, because they—’ If you erase [the] constitution, if [you] destroy the press, if you call the press the enemy of the people and undermine them—you’re allowed to criticize the press. [The] press is like anything else. It can be a whorehouse just like the political scene can be.
ABM: There’s no question. I mean, I agree.
TB: I think it was Thomas Jefferson that said, ‘If I had to choose between a free press and a Congress, I would choose the free press over the Congress.’
ABM: That’s right. I absolutely agree with you. I just want you to try to draw a sort of a scenario.
ABM: How do you see that evolving? I absolutely agree that the current situation – that is, where the two-state solution is losing ground, day after day.
TB: It will start in Jerusalem.
TB: We’re talking about—the unified Jerusalem. Now, to make things clear. We have to understand, something like 60 to 70 percent of so-called East Jerusalem, what we annexed, for the 3,000-year history of Jerusalem was never part of Jerusalem. It’s about 60 or 70 villages that are all slums, that were never part of Jerusalem, ever. That’s number one. But let’s say, OK we unified, ‘unified’ in inverted commas, we unified Jerusalem. By the very fact, under Israeli law, by the very fact that they are residents of Jerusalem, they can vote in the Jerusalem elections—the Arabs of East Jerusalem. Up until now they haven’t done that. Because they have this crazy thing about honor, the Arabs.
ABM: Oh yeah, yeah.
TB: They’re, ‘oh, honor.’ We’re not—you know, which is sort of a synonym for stupid. They can vote in the Jerusalem elections. Now I’m saying, OK. You’ve won. Because you have a whole new—I’m talking about, let’s say young Palestinian leadership coming up post-Abbas, post all these ancient guys—people who were born after the creation of the state, people who were born after ‘67. OK. We need a whole new—we need our rights, we have to live. You know, there’s thousands of East Jerusalem Arabs that are applying for Israeli citizenship because they want to get into universities and things like that. OK. What if they vote in the next Jerusalem elections? I think there’s something like 31 members of the Jerusalem City Council. If they vote as a bloc, they’ll get 10, 12, 13.
ABM: At least, at least.
TB: If they join with the Haredim, with the ultra-orthodox, they’re an absolute majority. Now as it is, secular and modern Orthodox Jews are leaving Jerusalem in droves because of the Haredi influence. If it’s joined to the Arabs, it’s the end of Jerusalem. It becomes—Jerusalem will be ruled by anti-Zionist parties. The capital of the Zionist state will be ruled by anti-Zionist parties. I mean, we’ll have to fly into the Knesset with helicopters. So it will start there, and that will be a psychological thing. When we have national elections, they can set up faux voting booths. And we’ll try to break them up, and that will be all over the evening news all over the world, we’re br—but we want to vote too. This is our country.
ABM: But let’s go beyond Jerusalem, though. Let’s go beyond Jerusalem. Again, I want to refer to your book. So, let’s further develop the scenario. What was going to bring to what you term the suicide of the Jews, if you were to continue with this current scenario that you started?
TB: Well it’s multifaceted. It’s not just the Palestinians, it’s the fact that because of this culture, loyalty now to the Jewish people, given the Israeli political establishment which is right-wing, is loyalty to the settlement project.
TB: For example, they [were] going to have the Italian um, what do they call it, the bicycle thing. Uh, when they have the, like, you have the French, when they have these huge bicycle races, what do they call it, that Armstrong was in?
ABM: Yeah, yeah, the—
KH: The Tours.
TB: Yeah, the Tour d’Italia, there’s the Tour d’France. OK. Well, these Tours start in other countries, like the Tour de France last time started in England. This year, they wanted to start in Israel, [the] Tour d’Italia. So they write, ‘we will start in West Jerusalem.’ Because they wrote West Jerusalem, our wonderfully sophisticated Minister of Culture said we’re not going to support it. Ok, what is my point. Loyalty to Israel is now dictated about your attitude towards Arabs and Muslims in general, which spills over into the settlements. This explains why Bibi and other Likudniks cozy up to these right-wing fascists in Eastern Europe. American Jews can’t understand what’s going on here. This guy said, the guy that was an ally of the present prime minister of—the ally of Hitler was a great patriot. Oh we don’t have a problem with that. Let him attack Soros. Soros is evil because Soros is against the settlements. This guy is good because he’s at least indifferent. So that’s that. Ok, That’s one angle. As long as we can keep the ultra-Orthodox happy, we’ll screw American Jewry. You see, [the] ultraorthodox keep us in power, and us in power, that supports the settlements. I heard a very, it can’t be proved but it’s very logical. Why it takes eight to 10 years to have a real estate project, a building project in Israel proper, and why it makes housing so expensive. It’s done purposely. They want people to move to the West Bank.
ABM: Yeah, and there it takes less than a year.
TB: Less than a year, a year.
ABM: Less than a year.
TB: And half the price for the same house.
ABM: Yeah, yeah.
TB: So you have what you call the bourgeois settlements, not the ideological settlements.
ABM: That’s right.
TB: People who are young couples who couldn’t afford housing.
ABM: They have better housing, better views, cleaner air, and cheaper. Much cheaper.
TB: And if you live there, it’s easy to get government jobs. In other words, everything is focused to that one thing. When I talk about the settler culture influencing politics, I’m talking about that. So right now we’re alienating Diaspora Jewry, especially American Jewry, with utter contempt. I blame American Jews for this, that they’ve put up with it. You know, I mean the Israelis have been peeing on American Jews for years, and American Jews open up umbrellas and thank God for rain. You know, no, the Israelis are peeing on us. I think it’s about time the American Jews woke up and said, you’re peeing on us. We’re not going to take it anymore.
ABM: I think they started to know, they started to feel that.
TB: It’s a bit late, it’s a bit late.
ABM: And then also it manifests itself with less and less younger American Jews are coming to Israel, and those who come, many of them are getting disillusioned rather quickly and go back, which is really a very interesting phenomenon. It didn’t happen—
TB: Well there’s another interesting phenomenon now. The millennials of the evangelicals, of the under 35 evangelicals, support for Israel is less and less; it’s about equally support for Palestinians. In other words, these Israelis [say]—we can give up American Jews because we’ve got the evangelicals, and there are 40, 50 million and they’re really, you know, really pro-Israel. History happens, and history matters, and history evolves. People forget that before 1967, Israel’s special relationship was with France and the European left. The European Socialists, who when they were arguing with them they’d say, if you’re socialist you’re for Stalin. They say no. Look at the kibbutz, look at the Histadrut. Now, our special relationship is with the United States and the evangelicals.
ABM: That’s right.
TB: But that too can change.
ABM: And I think it’s changing.
TB: It is changing.
ABM: It is changing already. Absolutely.
TB: First of all, there’s a lot of evangelicals that are people of color and Hispanic, and they have a different view of things. And then you have the younger evangelicals who might even have a university education, who might be a little more sophisticated – still support Israel, but not uncritically. And if it comes to a One Man, One Vote, and if the Palestinians are smart enough to read about Martin Luther King and Gandhi and change their whole thing into a non-violent thing, we’re done. We’re done.
ABM: But you say we’re done. We’re done say politically because of demographics. That is, Israel cannot have it both ways. it cannot have a democracy and cannot—
ABM: It just cannot. OK. How would that now evolve into the much more severe scenario that you are developing?
TB: Well, the same thing that we talked about. This would be, in my opinion would alienate 70, 80 percent of world Jewry, would alienate a huge number of the elites of Israel.
ABM: What would happen to Israel itself? What will happen to the Jews here? What will happen here?
TB: That I don’t know. I think a lot would leave. See, what they—also, the other thing that Israelis don’t is—we brag about startup nation, you know high tech and everything. What they don’t understand, these people, it’s that startup nation can get on an airplane and leave the country tomorrow. It’s not like you have steel and coal and automobiles and factories and stuff. It’s all brains. These guys could export their entire company as an attachment to an email. Could put it on a flash drive and put it in their pocket and get on a plane and go to America, plug it into a computer and they have their—now, they would still have the brains here, but believe me, any country in the world would make it easier for these kind[s] of brains to immigrate. I tell people I could bring Israel to its knees by taking one or 2,000 people out of the country. The top people. Civilizations are always run by elites. It’s snobby to say that, but it’s true. What, America wouldn’t let these people in? Canada wouldn’t let these people in? Australia wouldn’t let these people in? England won’t let these people in?
ABM: No, they are trying to—
TB: They’re trying to get them anyway.
ABM: They want them, they want them badly. Of course, of course. I mean we see this already.
TB: I mean, you see Silicon Valley, I read somewhere that 50 percent of the Ph.D.s in Silicon Valley were born in China or in India. You add on the Israelis, the French, and the, it’s like, so America, you know, all these people that are against immigration in America, I said, believe me, you could trade Kentucky and Montana, and it wouldn’t be half of what Silicon Valley is worth in terms of economics.
ABM: No, I mean, it is very—
TB: These people can go anywhere; they’re mobile.
ABM: I mean it’s already happening. I saw some statistics that suggest nearly 700,000 Israelis are in New York, in the states.
TB: In the states.
ABM: And the majority of them are in New York City, state.
TB: LA is really big.
ABM: L.A., [unclear], yeah, but vast majority of them are also all in New York.
TB: You know, the ironic thing is Zionism wanted to create this rooted, earthbound Jew, not the mobile Jew, the wandering Jew. The young Israeli who served in the army and went to university is probably the most cosmopolitan young person on the face of the planet Earth. That’s the irony of it. You drop him—you know, they serve in the army. They’re already 22 years old before they’re freshmen in university. They’ve been officers, they’ve been in charge of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, they’ve controlled and organized stuff. Then they take a trip around the world.
TB: Crazy stuff. They go to places nobody in the world goes. I mean, you go to places like in South America, and they say the Israelis are crazier even than the Australians – and the Australians are pretty crazy it seems. You know, they go to places nobody goes. And they come back, and they’re not afraid to fail. Israelis have no shame in failing. They try, fail, OK try again.
ABM: They get up again, try again.
TB: Try again.
ABM: That’s right.
TB: They don’t care, which is great for a modern economy. Risk means nothing to them. These are the kind of people that can go anywhere. They speak fairly good English compared to the rest of the non-English speaking world, and they’re fairly sophisticated, and you drop them anywhere, they live. In other words, I can’t be specific about what’s going to happen, but if I was a Palestinian strategist, I could tell you what I would do.
ABM: I will tell you the Palestinians, wait a minute, so to speak. Wait. I mean, time is against Israel 100 percent.
TB: Oh, a lot of them are saying that.
ABM: Yes, wait. You don’t need another intifada.
TB: It might not happen in my lifetime, but my grandkids, in another 100 years, it’ll be. And they have that attitude. Jews are impatient. Arabs are very patient. That’s a temperamental thing. I know people say, ‘well that’s not politically correct because you’re making stereotypes and this, that, the other.’ But I think certain cultures are impatient and certain cultures are patient. Jewish culture is impatient. That’s why Jews are always like at the forefront of stuff, of new entrepreneurial things and new social things and more active in this, they’re impatient. Jews are impatient.
ABM: Yeah, I mean this also comes—
TB: In general.
ABM: I agree, this comes also from a sense of perpetual insecurity.
TB: Yes. No, what it comes from. Yeah, I agree, yeah.
ABM: And so they try to sort of focus on more than one thing at a time. This is very true. So, let’s take it further. And then what?
TB: Look, I was just in the hospital. About 50 to 60 percent of the staff in the hospital are Arabs. Doctors, nurses, male and female. Four doctors saw me, only one was Jewish. You know, this is another thing. The stereotypes have been turned upside down in Israel. There’s a higher percentage of Arab doctors to the population than Jewish doctors to the population in Israel. And why? Because Jews are impatient. It’s, what, I’m gonna study 10, 12 years and then try to make a living? The Arabs are more patient. Not only that, medicine is one of the only places in Israel where there’s not the structural discrimination.
TB: And also it’s a status job, and they’re an honor society. They go into medicine. Jews want to go into high tech. If a Jew’s good in science or math, he goes into high tech. Arabs go into medicine. I don’t know, it depends on what they feel. Because what’s happening with the young Arabs in this country is interesting too. I don’t think they identify with what’s going on in the Arab world, but I can’t speak for them. You know, they—would they like to live in a country that’s totally Judenrein and be taken be another Arab country like Jordan or Lebanon or whatever? I’m not so sure.
ABM: So what, are you suggesting that what you are seeing it’s continuing attrition of Jews leaving this country, getting disenchanted?
TB: Even the ones that stay. Ok, look at this way. I was in the Israeli army, I was in the American army, had an honorable discharge from the American army, I came here, was drafted here and then I served in the Israeli army and I did about 15 years of reserves. If you are the kind of officer that’s very good at the occupation, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good officer fighting the Syrian commandos. It’s a different kind of talent, ‘talent’ in inverted commas.
ABM: Yeah, yeah, of course.
TB: It’s a different kind of personality. When I started my—I was drafted in ‘71, fought in the Yom Kippur war ‘73. When I first was doing my first real reserve duty, I was doing maybe a total of 30 days a year, which was divided as five days a year of exercises, military exercises where you imitate warfare—really, the Israeli army really does this by the way, it’s not playing games—and 20 days doing guard duty at various settlements and stuff like that. By the time I finally got out of the army of active duty in ‘83, it was the last time actually, we were doing 40 days a year and doing two or three days of exercise every other year. So what happens in the Lebanese war? Give you an example, an anecdote. We did all our training at night. There’s something about fighting at night which empowers the person who’s initiating, and makes the people who are being attacked fearful. So they go into Lebanon. And this tank unit gets an order to go attack this village at night. Five minutes, the guy comes back and says, ‘We can’t do that.’ He says, ‘why not?’ He said, ‘we didn’t do any training at night.’ So there’s also this great wonderful Israeli army that pound for pound is the greatest army in the world. If that’s how you’re splitting up your time, guarding the settlements and, and doing [in Hebrew], what do you call [in Hebrew]?
ABM: Yeah, Barriers.
TB: Barricades and making night raids at 2:00, 3:00 in the morning in the villages and stuff like that. When it comes to a pitched battle, you’re not going to be too good at it. You follow what I’m saying? In other words, it’s an erosion of quality all along the line.
ABM: Absolutely. You know, during this war in 2006 which lasted 50 days, we were then questioning what the heck is going on. What is it that’s taking place that Israel could not wind this up in a week or two? Because you know.
TB: Well I’ll tell you what the right-wing will say. Because we’re not ruthless enough.
ABM: Yeah, Yeah.
TB: We take into consideration too much civilian casualties.
ABM: This is baloney. But in the end there was an investigation as you well know, and exactly confirming what you just said. That there was a mess.
TB: It’s a mess.
ABM: Yeah. And finally they had to send different kind of units in order to clean up and finish the war.
TB: They also sent units in, and people got killed because they had the wrong equipment. Wars are won by logistics. If you give people the wrong equipment, they’re gonna get killed.
ABM: To your best knowledge, has this changed now somewhat?
TB: It probably has, but still at the immediate level, approximate level, at the Army level per se, it’s probably much better now. But in the general cultural level—look, both my boys were asked to go to officer school. And both declined. They do not want to be officers. Why?
ABM: Are they still in the army, or are they out?
TB: No, they’re out of the army, and they get out of reserves as much as they can. And by the way, awful lot of—and nobody is ever brought up on charges for getting out of reserves anymore, ‘cause they’d have to put half the country in jail.
ABM: I’m sorry, come again?
TB: They try to get, when they used to be called every year.
TB: They don’t go.
ABM: And there’s no repercussion?
TB: No, no. None. So they’re not the only ones. Very few people who are educated and have any kind of I would call democratic decency don’t feel great about serving. Look at the officer corps now. It’s disproportionately religious, and disproportionately settler. So you get the settler culture and everything. You’ve got one person on the Supreme Court who is a settler. So you have this erosion of what I would call enlightenment values that were part and parcel of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which sort of acknowledged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights kind of thing. You know, everybody’s got rights and—I remember some years ago they wanted to make the Declaration of Independence a Basic Law of the country, and the religious and the right-wing were against it. Because there’s a couple of paragraphs in there that serve almost as a kind of Bill of Rights, equivalent of—you know, we don’t have a written constitution, but if it is, a Basic Law is our Constitution. And if this was adopted, it would like limit half the stuff that they do when they do ‘legally’ in inverted commas. Not particularly constitutionally, but certainly legally in the present situation. So that’s it. You know, if your one judge of loyalty is—for example, they’re introducing a law now that if I come out and say I’m not going to buy any products from the settlements, I can go to jail for three years if I say that. Or I can be sued by a settler, up to 500,000 shekels or something, I don’t know, some crazy amount. And he doesn’t have to prove damages. Just the very fact that I say that. That’s what they’re pushing. Those are the kinds of laws they’re pushing.
ABM: Yeah. There’s another law they’re pushing now about the power of the police.
TB: Oh yeah.
ABM: Limiting the power to investigate corruption.
TB: Not only the police, the state comptroller. They want to limit the power of the state comptroller, that he doesn’t release things at the time that he discovers [them]. In other words, he only releases them when it’s too late, when this money’s already been stolen. It’s a lot of things. And everything is because if it’s good for the settlements. There’s two visions of Zionism. One is Zionism, we’re going to come back to our ancestral homeland to recreate the past, and that is the view that is dominant today. The view that appealed to me, and which was the view of the founding fathers of Israel—and that is Ben-Gurion and Weitzman and I would even say Jabotinsky—I think Jabotinsky would be turning in his grave today, what the people are in his name are doing, because he was a constitutionalist. He believed in full rights for the Arabs, by the way, no d— He was more of a constitutionalist than Ben-Gurion in that respect. No. The purpose of Zionism is to create alternative future options for the Jewish people. Options, plural.
ABM: Yeah, yeah.
TB: So we can create a new future. But the past has a voice, but not a veto.
ABM: Absolutely. It’s a guide, it’s a guide.
TB: It’s an inspiration but it’s not a diktat. And we’re not dictated to by the past. I don’t care if Abraham, Father Abraham, took a nap on this hill. I really don’t care.
TB: Even if he existed, didn’t exist, makes no difference. I don’t care if King David did this here. There’s a story about Ben-Gurion having an argument with a Bundist. A Bundist is, people who don’t know, is somebody who advocated the Yiddish language and the Yiddish culture, which Ben-Gurion really hated. And the Bundist got so exasperated [and] says ‘what, a thousand years of history isn’t important?’ And Ben-Gurion very calmly said ‘Yes. The next thousand years is more important.’
TB: Not the past, but the future. And you look at all the great civilizations in the world, all the great cultures in the world, and they’re future-oriented. America is the perfect example, the United States of America. That’s like the total future civilization.
ABM: I mean, do you really see a sort of slow demise of Israel as we know it?
TB: Not in my lifetime. Look, Israel’s very robust. Israel—you look at things other than the settler thing. I’ll give you a—I came in 1967.
ABM: No, no, but given everything you’re saying, the attrition, the erosion.
TB: It will take much longer than a lot of people on the left think, in my opinion. It won’t be in my lifetime and maybe not in the lifetime of my kids, but by the end of the century— Look, in my book I say by 2048, you know like one hund— I did this thing. 100 years, founded in 48, 2048, maybe 20, 30, 40 years, I don’t know. It’s a—but Israel’s very s—
ABM: What would be then, [in] 20, 30, 40 years?
TB: No idea. Either no Jews, or just some kind of mediocre Middle Eastern state. Nothing qualitative about it, nothing special about it. Impoverished.
ABM: And because of what? Because—
TB: Because a lot of the elites will leave. By the way, a lot of the Arab elites will leave too.
ABM: They are leaving.
TB: They’ll leave too. They don’t want to put up with this stuff.
ABM: They are getting sick and tired of it, yeah.
TB: Yeah, you think they don’t know that the Palestinian Authority is one of the most corrupt things on the face of the planet Earth? Did you know the Palestinians have received four times the amount of aid per individual than the Europeans received under the Marshall Plan? And they’re still in the toilet.
ABM: No, you’re right. You know, I had a group just recently in Brussels before I came here. Palestinians, Israelis; and several of the Palestinians said to me ‘if I had an opportunity to leave, I’d leave tomorrow. If I could get a visa tomorrow to the United States, Britain, anywhere in the EU, I would leave tomorrow. There’s no prospect for me anymore.’ So many Israelis who were with the same group, a few of them said the same thing.
TB: My son, my youngest son, he has a friend, a woman, an Arab-Palestinian from East Jerusalem. He’s trying to help her get a job in Haifa. She’s a scientist, she’s very qualified. She doesn’t want to live with these people. Her people.
TB: Her people.
ABM: So do you think there is anything [that] can be done, should be done, if you were to reverse this trend?
TB: Yeah, if I’m—
ABM: No, but practically speaking, in practical terms.
TB: Yeah. I, look. I think looking for the big deal that Trump brags about, oh, he’s going to make the greatest deal in the world in the Middle East, it’s nonsense. The greatest deal in the world was on the table in 2000 at Camp David, and it was turned down by Arafat.
ABM: OK, well that’s gone, that’s what I say.
TB: So I talk about mitigating rather than resolving. I don’t think you can resolve this situation in the near future. When I say near future, I mean the next 20, 30, 40 years, but you could certainly mitigate it. And what do I mean? Let’s look at the present opportunity that Israel has, that had some kind of vision and courage in its political class. The Sunni Arab world is dying to make peace with Israel. Not because they love us, but because they’re scared to death of Shiite Iran. And they’re more scared of Iran than we are, and justifiably. We shouldn’t be that scared of Iran, by the way, that’s really exaggerated in my opinion.
ABM: Oh I know, I know, I agree.
TB: But they are. But they say what we need [is] some kind of progress on the Palestinian front. So I look at the West Bank. Eighteen percent Area A, 30-some percent Area B, and 50 percent Area C. Area A is total control by the Palestinian Authority, Area B has mutual control, Area C is total control by us, by Israel. Go to Saudi Arabia, go to [the] king of Morocco, whoever you go to, [and] say, ‘listen. We’re willing to go from 18 percent to 30 percent in Area A, make 30 percent of the West Bank Area A. We want five or six Arab countries to establish diplomatic relations with us. Set up an embassy, like Egypt and Jordan.’
ABM: But do you think they’ll go for that [on] an incremental base?
TB: That’s the only game in town, in my opinion. If they don’t go for that, then there’s no hope for anything. No hope for anything. I think so.
ABM: I mean if there’s a—
TB: I know, but say, this is not a final thing. Then we’ll go from 30 percent to 40 percent for another three or four.
ABM: I know. If you want to do that in stages, provided there is some kind of framework that is being presented in advance. I mean, they need to see the ultimate picture of what that’s going to look like, and they’ll probably be prepared to go in stages to do exactly what you’re saying.
TB: Ultimate visions that are too detailed can be a barrier, because then people begin to argue on the details.
ABM: No, the opposite, of just a vision of how it’s going to look like.
TB: Ok, The Camp David division. I said in general, the Camp David vision with minor changes.
TB: We’re still willing to go to that.
ABM: And then do it incrementally, along the lines of what you say.
TB: To do it incrementally, and build mutual confidence along the way, that gives the Israeli public more confidence, gives the Palestinians more confidence that they can compromise here without worrying about being screwed. Yeah. That’s the only game I would—and I would go to the Europeans, I would say to the Europeans ‘listen, we’re going to have a problem about land swaps. We’re going to keep the land within the barrier but we’ll give—’ that’s not going to happen. So why don’t you build islands off of Gaza, like they build in Qatar and all these places. Islands, you know. Using islands of the same land area that—and let us, as an interim stage, annex this area within the barrier. Make it part of Israel. That’s not occupied anymore. That’s now Israel. But they get the equivalent.
ABM: Well what’s wrong with [a] land swap?
TB: Because where [are] you going to give it?
ABM: We won’t?
TB: Where [are] you going to give it?
ABM: Who or to where?
TB: Where [are] you going to take it from?
ABM: Well I mean they’ve been talking about, I mean.
TB: I know, but nobody’s been specific when you think about it.
ABM: Maps and maps.
TB: I know, but when you think about it specifically, it’s not going to happen.
ABM: Yeah, specifically I mean no, there were actually specific maps that—
TB: Yeah, I know, but it’s not going to happen. There’s psychological things about this and there’s practical things. If you’re going to expand Gaza, you have to take down 20 Israeli settlements that are within Israel proper.
ABM: I’m not talking about Gaza. I’m talking about [the] West Bank.
TB: Well that’s where land swaps are going to go.
ABM: I’m talking about the West Bank.
TB: We—land swaps is, we keep part of the West Bank and give part of Israel proper.
ABM: Yeah, but Israel proper there’s basically south, you know south uh, east of—
TB: Whatever. I’m saying, this is something I would say to the Europeans. And you give them an international airport on these islands, like you have in Hong Kong, [an] international port. We’re willing to do that. Tit for tat, tit for tat, throw things out. Get them in the conversation, get them to say, this is interesting. Maybe it can’t be done. I say the peace process per se is Israel’s greatest strategic asset. Whenever there’s a vigorous process, we’re the flavor of the month.
ABM: Yeah, but they are not using it, that’s a problem. And the process just remains in name, there’s no progress in this process, and no one—
TB: So make the peace process substantive.
ABM: Yeah, yeah.
TB: Make it sort of a reverse erosion. Look, we don’t want to be there anyway. You talk to the average Jewish mother in Israel, oh, you want your kid to be guarding a settlement? Are you kidding?
ABM: No, of course not. Of course not.
TB: Are you kidding? Scared to death.
ABM: In conclusion.
TB: Yeah. In conclusion, the racist canard that Jews are smarter than other people has been totally disproven by the Zionist project. Give us power and we’re just as stupid as everybody else.
ABM: I’d say amen to that. OK well thank you.
Alon Liel has served the Israeli Foreign Ministry in various positions: the head of the Israeli mission in Turkey (1981-1983), the Foreign Ministry spokesman and the member of the Israeli negotiating team at the Taba talks with Egypt (1985–1987), Ambassador to South Africa in (1992-1994), Director General of the Ministry of Economy and Planning (1994-1996), Foreign Policy Advisor to Ehud Barak (1997-1999), Director General of the Foreign Ministry (2000-2001).
Liel is the author of several books, namely Turkey in the Middle East – Oil, Islam and Politics (1993), Black Justice – The South African Upheaval (1999), Turkey – The Military, Islam and Politics (1999), Turkey in the Middle East (2001), Demo Islam, Turkey’s New Regime (2003). He has taught courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University on Turkey and the Middle East politics.
Liel was the board member of Gazit Inc. (biggest real estate company in Israel). He was the chairman of the Israel-Turkey Business Council between 2002-2006, and is the chairman of the Global Code Ltd.
Liel was the president of the Jewish-Arab soccer club, Abu Gosh-Mevaseret. He is also the founder and the chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society.
Moshe Ma’oz is Professor Emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a previous Director of the university’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. Professor Ma’oz is renowned for his expertise in Arab and Middle East affairs, and has published extensively on Islam and on the history and politics of the Middle East. He is a leading expert on Syria. Professor Ma’oz has been a visiting professor, scholar, and fellow at many leading universities and institutions around the world. He has served as an advisor on Arab Affairs for Israel’s Knesset, and was a member of official advisory committees that counseled the late Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.
My guest today is Professor Safwan M. Masri, Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University. In this role, he directs a number of Columbia’s global initiatives and is responsible for the development of an expanding network of Global Centers, located in Amman, Beijing, Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, and Tunis. These centers work to advance Columbia’s global mission and extend the University’s reach to address the pressing demands of our global society.
Masri holds a senior research scholar appointment at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He joined the faculty of Columbia Business School in 1988 and was appointed Vice Dean in 1993, a position he held for thirteen years. He previously taught engineering at Stanford University, and was a visiting professor at INSEAD (Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires) in France.
A scholar on education and contemporary geopolitics and society in the Arab world, Masri’s work focuses on understanding the historic, postcolonial dynamics among religion, education, society, and politics. He is the author of Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly (Columbia University Press, 2017), which examines why Tunisia was the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring as a democracy. Masri’s writings on education and current affairs have been featured in the Financial Times, Huffington Post, and Times Higher Education.
Masri is an honorary fellow of the Foreign Policy Association. He was founding chairman of both King’s Academy and Queen Rania Teacher Academy in Jordan, and served as an advisor to Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah. He is a trustee of International College in Beirut and of the Welfare Association (Taawon) in Ramallah, and a member of the advisory board of the School of Business at the American University in Cairo. Masri has served on the governing boards of Endeavor Jordan, the Children’s Museum Jordan, Arab Bankers Association of North America (ABANA), and Aramex.
Masri earned his Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering from Purdue University in 1982; his Master of Science in industrial engineering, also from Purdue, in 1984; and his Ph.D. in industrial engineering and engineering management from Stanford University in 1988. He was honored with Columbia’s Singhvi Professor of the Year for Scholarship in the Classroom Award in 1990, the Robert W. Lear Service Award in 1998, and the Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence in a Core Course in 2000. Masri has also been honored with the 2003 American Service Award from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Nina Khrushcheva is Professor of International Affairs at New School University in New York. She is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and contributing editor to Project Syndicate: Association of Newspapers Around the World. After receiving her PhD from Princeton University, she had a two-year research appointment at the School of Historical Studies of Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and then served as Deputy Editor of East European Constitutional Review at NYU School of Law. She is a member of Council on Foreign Relations and a recipient of Great Immigrants: The Pride of America Award from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Her articles have appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and other publications. She is the author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics (Yale UP, 2008) and The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey Into the Gulag of the Russian Mind (Tate, 2014).
On this episode, my guest Dr. Waheguru Pal Singh (W.P.S.) Sidhu and I discuss Iran, North Korea, and nuclear proliferation.
Dr. Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu is Visiting Professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Non-Resident Fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation (CIC), as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Brookings. Prior to coming to CIC, he served as Vice President of Programs at the EastWest Institute in New York, and as Director of the New Issues in Security program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). Dr. Sidhu has researched, written, and taught extensively on the United Nations and regionalism, peace operations, Southern Asia, confidence-building-measures, disarmament, arms control, and non-proliferation issues. His recent publications include: The Iraq Crisis and World Order: Structural, Institutional and Normative Challenges; Arms Control after Iraq: Normative and Operational Challenges; Kashmir: New Voices, New Approaches; and China and India: Cooperation or Conflict? He has also published in leading international journals, including Arms Control Today, Asian Survey, Disarmament Diplomacy, Disarmament Forum, International Peacekeeping, Jane’s Intelligence Review, Politique Etrangere, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Dr. Sidhu was the consultant to the first, second, and third United Nations Panel of Governmental Experts on Missiles in 2001-2002, 2004 and 2007-2008 respectively. He was also appointed as a member of the Resource Group set up to assist the United Nations High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change in 2004. Dr. Sidhu earned his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. He holds a Masters in International Relations from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a Bachelor’s degree in History from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, India.
My latest guest is Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), a New York based non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening an expression of Islam based on cultural and religious harmony, as well as building bridges between Muslims and the general public. At ASMA, Daisy Khan has created a number of groundbreaking intra- and inter-faith programs. She has led numerous interfaith events, such as the theater production, Same Difference, and the Cordoba Bread Fest Banquet. She continues to mentor American Muslims on assimilation issues, balancing faith and modernity, the challenges of living as a minority, and intergenerational questions. To strengthen the voices of women and youth within the global Muslim community, she created two cutting-edge programs of international scope: Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT) and the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE).
Khan regularly lectures in the United States and internationally. She has appeared on numerous media outlets, such as CNN, Al Jazeera, and BBC World’s Doha Debates. She often serves as an adviser and contributor to a variety of documentaries, including PBS’s Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, National Geographic’s Inside Mecca, and the Hallmark Channel’s Listening to Islam. Khan is a weekly contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog and is frequently quoted in print publications, such as Time Magazine, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Saudi Gazette, and the Khaleej Times. Born in Kashmir, she spent twenty-five years as an interior architect for various Fortune 500 companies. In 2005, she dedicated herself to full-time community service and building movements for positive change, both in the United States and around the globe. In recognition of this important work, Khan is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Interfaith Center’s Award for Promoting Peace and Interfaith Understanding, Auburn Seminary’s Lives of Commitment Award, and the Annual Faith Leaders Award. She was also selected by Women’s eNews as one of the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century.
Alon Ben-Meir: I’m Professor Alon Ben-Meir and this is On the Issues. My guest today is Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality. Formerly, Daisy served as Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, where she spent the last 18 years creating groundbreaking interim and interfaith programs based on cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration. You can find her full bio on the page for this episode. So thank you so much Daisy for taking the time. I’m really delighted to have this conversation with you, and I know that whoever will listen to it is going to learn something from you for sure.
Daisy Khan: Thank you Alon for inviting me. I’m really excited to be here with your audience.
ABM: So anyway, I know that you have a number of very important focuses on which you’ve been talking, writing, doing a great deal of preaching, and your voice has been heard quite well in many places. But let me begin by asking you something about this specifically, especially important to you, and that’s the role of women in conflict resolution. And I know you’ve been talking about it and trying to promote the whole notion that women’s role is critically important, and I think you and I agree that it has not been fully utilized yet in the search for a resolution to specific conflicts. What is your take? Where would you start? What would you like to advance in order to make people, listeners, those who specifically deal with conflict resolution, understand that a woman is a great asset that has not been fully utilized, and that something has to change. What is it going to take?
DK: Yeah. Well I think, Alon, sometimes we have to look back in history to move forward. And that’s what I did with my own work. I had to find sources and historical references in my own faith tradition to see what women had done before me, because as modern women living in contemporary societies, we think that the work we’re doing today to advance women is actually just uniquely to our situation. But the reality is that women from the earliest of times, from all of our faith traditions, have been very active in the communities. You know, [unclear] communities, right? So, creating progress, but really fundamentally at the core level, a woman has always been one half of society, and the other half she raises on her laps. And so the responsibility of a woman to bring up a right kind of children and give them the right sort of, what shall we say, ethic of building peace and nurturing them, is what makes us natural peacemakers. It’s because we know how to reduce conflict in the home, because whenever conflicts will rise, a mother is usually a good person who is trying to calm things down between warring factions within the family. So I think that we just inherently are trained and have this ability to reach across, and trying to build peace within the home. Why women have not really been taken seriously to play this role actively in politics and in conflict resolutions, I think that has to do with pretty much why there’s a glass ceiling for women in other areas as well, because maybe traditionally people thought that women should not venture out. You know, her role should just be in a home, it should not be on the outside. I think that’s changing, because more and more people like yourself and many men in our community have recognized the role that we play and are actively supporting people like us now. And the moment people see us emulating something and we are recognized for that role, I think more people will recognize that women need to be given a seat at the table.
ABM: But the question today though, and I agree with you 100 percent – we look at various conflicts today raging in the Middle East and other places, and we see a very limited role that women are playing in the search for solutions. Men by and large have taken charge and continue to take charge of these issues. And you don’t hear voices coming from Syrian women, we don’t hear voices coming from Iraqi women or Yemenite women, or even women from Western countries crying out for solutions, crying out for getting that, the sensitivities, the need that women can project. And men have really been unable to do just that. And like you just said, whereas the women were dedicating themselves by and large to their home, to resolving issues within the home, raising the kids, providing them with the kind of culture and belief system, that was essential to raising a healthier and better community. But it has not been taken beyond that.
ABM: And what we want to do now, what I am preaching certainly, is that time has come to move beyond the women’s role at home. We have to take it further because it’s a significant asset. And in the search for a solution to the conflict, women need to play a role. You remember very well the role of women in finding a resolution to the Northern Ireland conflict, when finally they said enough is enough.
DK: Right. Right.
ABM: So what would you do? What are the things that you would like to promote, in order to awaken men and women alike that the time has come for us to do more? Because look at these intractable conflicts consuming us just about everywhere, and women are still silent.
DK: Well I think that there are a couple of things going on. First, men have been largely responsible for creating peace treaties, because they are the ones that are sitting at these tables where peace treaties are being made and governments are negotiating terms of peace agreements. And there’s a lot of power behind that, because there is an entire institution of a country behind that. But women have always played a role in reducing conflict to begin with. So in other words, women have been doing it, but it’s at the grassroots level, and it’s almost unseen. And they are attenuating, making sure that conflict doesn’t arise, and they’re trying to calm the waters. This work has been going on. I can cite so many women that are doing this work in Muslim countries all over the world. I mean, you talk about Yemen, you know we had Tawakkol [Karman], who was a Nobel laureate. We had this young girl in Egypt, Asmaa Mahfouz, who was the first one who called for the revolution in Egypt. She barely got any notice, and the Google guy got all the notice, right? In Afghanistan, I know women who are putting themselves on the front lines to make sure that their children are getting the education, and they are taking survivors of rape and war and giving them a chance at life. This work is going on all over the world, but it’s not taken seriously because it’s very much at the grassroots and it’s not at the bilateral decision.
ABM: Exactly, it’s on a micro level.
DK: Yeah. So people think that the government-to-government is more important. But really what’s important is the societal piece is equally important. So it has to be taken just as seriously as the other one.
ABM: Exactly. But the question is why is it not taken so seriously. That is, women are, like you just suggested, many women in various countries are active, very much active in these areas, in the search for a better community, more harmony, more peaceful, and they’re doing this legwork behind. But in the final analysis, by and large men are sitting at the negotiating table.
ABM: Ninety eight percent of the time. Occasionally you see women sitting at the negotiating table. And so the input of women are not being felt at these negotiating tables, albeit the men may be consulting their wives or girlfriends behind the scenes, but nevertheless it is the men who are speaking. It is the men who are representing their country, their society, or whatever it is that they represent. And although what you just said is true, how do we take that? What I’m fighting for, and what I want to see, I want to see women charging in the street. I want to see the women saying ‘enough is enough,’ like I’ve been advocating with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I think, ‘where are the women?’ Israelis and Palestinian women ought to be going out to the streets by the tens of thousands and say, ‘for how much longer can we keep this bloody conflict going on?’ Why can’t—
DK: There are women. There are women. The problem is, they’re not getting the kind of resources that they need to mobilize and to create the kind of army that you’re asking for. So, a very good example of this was women who took charge in Liberia. You know the war in Liberia that was going on, that raging war where children had become child soldiers and everything else. And this Christian woman, devout Christian woman had an epiphany, something came from God. She had to do something.
DK: And then she didn’t know what she was going to do, so she asked her mother, ‘I want to do this’ and her mother said, ‘well, why don’t you also ask your Muslim sisters? See if maybe you can get some ideas.’ And they paired up together and they came together as a group, and they just basically sat there and put up these peace signs that said ‘We want peace.’ They didn’t demand anything other than peace. And little by little, this little army that was literally like no more than 20 women grew to be an entire football field, and then eventually overthrew Charles – I don’t remember his last name – and brought in and voted for [Ellen Johnson] Sirleaf.
DK: They voted for a woman president. They all voted for her, and they asked the children to give back the guns, and this was the power of women coming together. But it was really their motivation and their guts that they went out. They barely had any money, and they did it with a force, but they were very strategic. They were very smart, because they were being led by a very strategic woman who made sure that they had a friend in the media, who was actually reporting on what they were doing. So every day this woman friend, who happened to have a radio show, was announcing, and this announcement was getting out there into communities, and more women were joining them. And they had a friend in the police department who was constantly telling them, ‘your enemies are coming to attack you,’ so they would disperse. So they actually were very strategic in making sure that they were protected, that they were not hurt. So that is an example. She did win the Nobel Peace Prize, she was awarded for that. But I think more stories like that, gradually people are beginning to see that women need to be at these peacebuilding tables or peacemaking tables. And I for one, in the Muslim world, I don’t know why more women aren’t being taken seriously, because we have a lot to offer. I know from my own experience.
ABM: Well of course, yes.
DK: In Afghanistan, the work we have done and the work I’m about to do is going to be a very good indicator of how women can do this in very creative ways. You see we don’t—also women do things in a very creative way.
ABM: Well, let’s take the example you just cited in Liberia, and there was a success story of women rising to the top and making a real difference. Now what were the advantages or the circumstances or the conditions that existed, that made it possible for her to do what she’s done? And if these conditions, circumstances, requirements exist elsewhere where there’s conflict – I mentioned Israeli-Palestinian, or in Syria and elsewhere. So is there something unique about the Liberian conflict where it gave rise to women to say, to do something about it? Why is it missing elsewhere? Albeit they share pretty much a similar culture.
DK: Yeah, yeah. And I think that the cultural context is really important. So you cannot have one size fits all, because it doesn’t, right? In different societies, the conditions of women are different. So in the Liberian situation, at least this is what I took away from the movie that I saw and after meeting this woman, Lima I think, that the role of the African woman is considered to, you know, it’s a matriarchal, you know.
DK: It may be a patriarchal society, but a woman commands a lot of respect and can demand certain things. You know, they’re very strong, they’re committed. I mean, they were the ones who called the child soldiers over and said, ‘Come over here, give me your gun,’ and the child soldiers were shaking in their booties. In fact, it was the U.N. that was trying to take the guns away from the children, and it was the women who actually succeeded in getting the guns. So then the U.N. realized, ‘Oh my God, the women are really good at this. How are they doing this and we’re not able to disarm people?’ So the women would just say, ‘come over here.’ You know?
ABM: This is this. But in your capacity—
ABM: And this is really what I’d like to – what it is that you can say, preach, talk about, write, that’s going to create a greater awareness. I know you’ve been doing this kind of work, but for someone like myself, I’ve been dealing with conflict resolution for more than three, almost four decades. To me, this is one of the issues that has really been bothering me for so long. And when I speak in conferences, meetings, where are the women, the women’s role, it’s so critical, where are they? And so, what would you do? What is it going to take? Let me just say, I wrote a piece a while ago and I said, just imagine if 50,000 Palestinian women, 50,000 Israeli women walk in the street. And—
DK: If they did what Liberian women did.
ABM: Yes. No guns no clubs, nothing.
DK: Just a peaceful—
ABM: Just walk. Or, for the Palestinians, walk and sit down on the roads that lead to various settlements. What would Israeli soldiers do? Women in Israel will do the same. Why is it not happening? Is there less motivation by these women, that are not less motivated than the Liberian women? What is missing? Is it the conflict doesn’t matter? Is the issue, is there too much complacency? Where is the difference, why does it matter? Why is it something like this can happen in Liberia, but it’s not happening in places where such conflicts have been raging for so many decades?
ABM: What, from your perspective, what is missing there? Why aren’t we seeing such women movements in these areas to say, like I said, enough is enough, we’re not going to take it anymore. We don’t want to see our children die for no reason.
DK: Yeah. Yeah. I think that some of it may have to do with what they think they will lose. In other words, they might lose more than they can gain. I think it’s a question of—
ABM: Meaning what?
DK: Well, so, if they have nothing to begin with, will they lose? Will there be an attack on them, on their families? The fear of the repercussions might be looming so large in their minds that they don’t feel that they can do anything, that they really can’t make a change. So the only way you can do it is if you create solidarity to such an extent that they really, genuinely believe – and that is why the organizing element has to come into this, because numbers do matter.
ABM: Well of course.
DK: In the case of Liberia, when they were like 18 women or so, this Charles, his army walked by and they started laughing at the women. They said, this is supposed to be a threat? These 18 women or whatever, they are sitting out there. And then when the numbers grew, they were like, ‘oh my God, what’s going on over here?’ And they were able to take them seriously, and I think that— But somebody was funding that organizing. There was money coming, and T-shirts were being bought. Somebody was saying, ‘we’re behind you. Go ahead.’ So people, although they might be leaders that genuinely know and care – and I have met Palestinian and Israeli women, they have actually come right into this room, I have sat down with them, and their perennial complaint is that they want to do something, but they can’t because there’s a lack of resources and there’s no way for them to mobilize two groups. And these are bereaved mothers, you know, on both sides, bereaved. mothers.
ABM: And the Liberian women have greater resources than the Palestinians and the Israelis?
DK: Well they might, but together they don’t have the resources. In other words, there’s no one big foundation or people who are funding this activity. You need to fund peace; the same way you fund war, you have to fund peace.
ABM: No, I understand that. But you know, look at the rel—
DK: Because once they know they’re secure, their families are secure, they will be able to go out. People are afraid for their children, they are afraid for their livelihood, they’re afraid for their families and the repercussions.
ABM: Well, this may very well be the case. But I personally don’t believe that; I don’t think it’s a question of resources, and I’ll tell you why. Look at, however is succeeded, did not succeed, the revolution in Egypt. There was no leadership, there was no funding, tens or hundreds of thousands, millions went to the streets.
DK: You mean Tahrir Square.
ABM: Tahrir Square.
DK: No, there was funding in Tahrir square. A lot of the funding was going from—
ABM: Who funded that?
DK: U.S. foundations were funding a lot of democracy people.
ABM: Well, but really it was very, very minimal. I mean, really, considering the hundreds of thousands—
DK: It’s true that hundreds and millions did come out.
ABM: Millions actually came out and the funding, given the size of the demonstration and what happened, was truly miniscule. But there, the motivation was different. The motivation was, thirty years or forty years of subjugation is way too long, we’re not going to take it any longer. So, resources is not necessarily the major factor. It helps if it’s there, but it should not in my view, in any event—and I’d love to get your input on this and maybe it does not and should not be impeding these type of efforts, that is the word of mouth. You know, we are not going to take it anymore. What it’s going to take? So, I want to begin to think in terms of, let’s not find it – and I’m not suggesting you have – find an excuse for that because there are no resources. But sitting at this desk where you are, you want to advocate that, you are a believer in that, you want to empower women.
DK: Yeah. I think women can do it. I really, genuinely—
ABM: Can do it, now, let’s find out. If you were to write a manual today, a couple of pages manual, and say, ‘This is what’s going to take to mobilize women.’ Right? If you think in those terms, and I certainly cannot second-guess you, because you know better than anyone else what it takes. What would you be advocating resources, notwithstanding necessary? What are we going to need to think in terms of creative thinking? What is going to get these women to come to the realization as the Liberians did, or Northern [Ireland] did, that we have to do something about it? Because I think current conflicts raging in so many different places, I don’t see how they’re going to come to an end unless we add this, another critically important dimension.
ABM: Women’s voice, women in power.
DK: Yeah. So I think that in my work, the success comes from first defining what the conflict is, what is the source of the conflict. So in other words, you have to do a little excavating because especially long term conflicts, over time you don’t even know what the conflict is about. Because the conflict, the face of the conflict, the name of the conflict, it changes, it becomes something completely different because you have different stakeholders who have stepped in, and you don’t even know what the original conflict was all about. So first, you have to excavate and really go deep and find out what is the source of the conflict, and who’s benefiting from it, and who’s, you know, what are you willing, what can you bring to the table, to that particular conflict? So in the case of Afghanistan, for instance, 30 years of war raging on is having a direct impact on children’s education, having a direct impact on not only education but women’s rights, because women are the first ones that suffer when you have longstanding conflicts. And then, if you look at Afghanistan in the 60s, you had a very progressive, modern society. Same people, same DNA. And then you have a complete subjugation, and you had a society that was very, very progressive and modern. So then, when we look at this conflict, we realize that actually the Taliban are so armed to the teeth, that they have received more armaments. And that the work that we did, the United States, the work that we did over time—one of the reasons why we went into Afghanistan was so we could disarm the Taliban, and actually when we left, they have more arms than they had previously because over the years so many arms have flown into that country. So you have so much armaments that there’s no way we can compete as women, with no arms, no nothing. There’s no way we can compete.
ABM: Yeah but certainly we are not talking about arming women. I mean the strength of women—
DK: No, no, so what I’m saying is that—
ABM: Is in their voice, not in the arms that they carry.
DK: Yeah, it is in their voice. But when they get out there and they put their voices out, they’ll be gunned down in two seconds. What is the point of giving your life for something that you know you’re going to get killed, your children are going to get killed?
ABM: But by whom will be they be gunned down? I mean talking about Afghanistan—
DK: By the Taliban. No, we’re talking about a conflict zone like Afghanistan, a major conflict.
ABM: Well Afghanistan, I mean the status of women there is really dismal. I mean, women there traditionally speaking, and I’m talking about—
DK: No, no, but I’m saying no, it’s not traditionally like that, that’s the misnomer. In the 60s, they were no different than other modern societies.
ABM: Well I mean under the Taliban regime they were totally treated differently.
DK: But that’s what I’m saying.
DK: So you have a group that came in there, subjugated women, took out education because they want power, and they think that the way to maintain power is to get rid of women and to keep women subjugated, because that’s how they can control society. And so you have a conflict that has gotten so muddied that you have to unravel that. So we decided that the best way for us to unravel that.
ABM: But if you leave Afghanistan for a while.
DK: No, but you asked me how do we resolve conflict.
ABM: No, I understand, but because, no on this very issue culturally speaking – and I’m certainly not demeaning Arab societies, I come from one of them. So by all means, the women do not play a significant role in most Arab societies, be that in the Gulf states, be that—the Gulf states more so, but take Saudi Arabia—even more advanced societies, even countries like Egypt, the role of women is not as significant obviously as compared to men. And that’s from a cultural perspective. That’s how it is. So again, we’re going to have to, how do we change that? Can we change that? How do you get the women more involved? Again, and not provide them by providing them necessarily the money or the guns, but what other means by which we can in fact promote the notion that you women have a power, a hidden, inherent power. It’s there, you possess it. Use it. How can we give this power out, exact it, so that the women know ‘I am powerful and I can do something with my voice’? It’s far greater, more powerful than what a man can do with a gun.
ABM: I mean I’d like you to, because you are a force in this area, and I’d like you to see, like you’d like to write, to say ‘here as a man, this is what needs to be done.’
DK: So I think in the case of Muslim women, it’s a very easy case to make with women because we are inherently taught through our scriptures that we are stewards of God on Earth—men and women equally—that we have a responsibility to play an ambassadorial role on behalf of God on this earth. So we are stewards of the environment, we’re stewards of justice, we’re stewards of all things. So Islam does not say that men are the only stewards, it actually says that both of you have been created as my ambassadors and my vice regents. So oftentimes women have forgotten that, that they play an equal role when it comes to that responsibility. Because you know, when you leave this earth and you go back, you will be told, ‘how did you discharge your responsibilities?’ And so this is where my motivation comes from. And this is where women who are faith-based women, who are really fighting the good fight, know that they’re inherently doing something where they are carrying out their responsibility that is endowed upon them. So that is very powerful, when you think that you are doing the work of the divine and that you are inspired and that you have a responsibility. So you’re not just trying to resolve a small conflict, you’re actually doing the work that you were sent to do. It’s your purpose in life. So this is where the motivation for many women is coming from, whether it’s resolving conflict or it’s to lift women, or it’s to—So, this is the power. This is where the power lies.
ABM: Let me reduce it to a practical example that I’d like you to elaborate on. Suppose you, Daisy, have been asked to speak to a group of women in a country that has significant conflict. Pick the country, be that Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, and you’re addressing a group of women. I’m not challenging you; I really want you to have that input. And you’re addressing this group of women, a thousand women sitting in front of you, and you try to instill in them the notion, the idea, you are powerful. You’ve got to do something about what’s happening in front of you, in this society – the bloodshed, the killing, the destruction. What would you say to them to evoke that reaction, to make them feel ‘I have a role to play and I’m going to have to play it’? What it is that you want to impart with them?
DK: Well as I mentioned, this is where my work always goes down to that cellular level of who you are as a human being, and what is it that is your responsibility, and you have to find out what is the mandate of your life, and that every person has come with a purpose, and that you need to find what that purpose is. Because each person has a different purpose, so it can’t be the same for everyone. But women inherently are called the seat of compassion, because the womb is called compassion in Arabic. It’s got the same root word. And it, they bring life into this world. So inherently, they are good at not only bringing life, nurturing life, but also saving lives. So women are the perfect carriers of this of this work. And when I speak to women, I remind them of that responsibility that they have, to be the good steward and to do the work for the sake of the greater good – not just for themselves – because they are equally empowered by God to carry out this work. In other words, if they decide to do this work, they will be helped from all kinds of ways, aid is going to come from all kinds of ways whether, you know the moment you put your mind to it, that you are going to do this work, you will find the right kind of partners coming forward. So in our case, we decided that it’s really important for us to work with people that influence society, and that if we have to really create change within the Muslim communities, we have to really engage people who are influential in our communities, and that’s our imams. So, although we might be women and we can do the work with women, why should we do the work only within women’s groups? Why shouldn’t we reach out to the menfolk in our community and say, ‘you need to come on board with us’?
ABM: Yeah, you can do that. But when you invoke faith here, I have a concern about that. Faith is important, and if you are a believer, a true believer, you can overcome sometimes many difficulties because you believe you can. But when faith is used for the precise opposite cause – used to exploit, used to kill as ISIS has been doing, as the Taliban has been doing, as others have been doing – then faith becomes a liability rather than asset, which in this case it is mentioned here. Yes, women, everybody’s accountable at one point. But if we were just to base there the need for the involvement on faith alone, probably that’s not going to go too far. Not in our current environment. And that’s what I’m telling to you, because, say you know you are a believer, you have to believe the goodness of human beings. You know that killing is not right; you know that torture is not right. You’ve got to do something about it. This is all clear, it’s given this can be preached to the men as well. But what I would like you, if you can help me out, to identify what it is that you tell these 1,000 women they can do tomorrow to begin a process, to begin to take the first step in order to galvanize, make it [unclear], that is a conflict, we cannot continue with it. What would you will tell them?
DK: Well, first they really have to believe that they can do it, because unless they fundamentally—
ABM: Again, I want you tell me that. How do you tell them? Why shouldn’t they believe that? Their kids are dying and getting killed. Their kids are getting hurt and injured, houses are being destroyed, so that they are confronted with this horrible reality day in and day out. So they believe they need, something needs to be done.
ABM: And this is what I find, a person like you who has the voice, I would like to see what it is that you would tell these people—get up, do something. What is it that they can do? How do you motivate them to do it?
DK: Well, sometimes it depends on the context of the person, because like I said, people have to be inspired by role models. And if they know that there is somebody that they can emulate in their work, it’s just a little bit easier for them. So, sometimes I have to tell the stories of women in the past who have really been, who have moved mountains, and people didn’t know that they have this ability. And so, if a woman feels that she is repressed— And I went to a shelter once, I’ll give you a story. I went to a shelter once and I was asked to speak to this. It wasn’t a thousand women, but it was maybe 20 women in a shelter, and I was asked to say something to inspire them. And I looked at these women and I said, ‘this is not the kind of audience I speak to. What am I going to tell these people?’ I’m not accustomed to speaking to people who are so down and out and have been beaten up. So I looked around the room, and there were all these women with little babies on their laps, and I decided that I was basically going to be like a spiritual mentor to them, because I knew that that would be the right approach for these women, because they were looking for something higher than themselves, because they had been so beaten up. So I reminded them about who they were, that they were created in the divine image. And I know that this may not work for everybody who is a secular person, but it certainly works on Muslim people because Muslims inherently are still very committed to their faith. And the language of faith is something that it resonates, and it translates very well and goes deep. So I reminded them that no one can lift their hand and hit you because they’re hitting divinity in the sense that, why would you tolerate that? You know, why would you tolerate anybody hitting you, because your face is that of a divine image. And then this woman asked me, she said, ‘but I don’t know how to take care of myself and I need money for my children, I can’t be independent’, and you know, they have real issues. So I reminded them about how the prophet’s wife was a merchant herself. She was a working woman. And Islam gives all the women the right to own wealth, to accumulate wealth. And why aren’t you doing that? Why aren’t you working? So you know, she told me that her husband told her that she couldn’t work. And I said no, I said, ‘you have been given the right from God to work, to accumulate wealth.’ And I had to literally cite certain verses and explained to her that this was her right, that she could go ahead and start her own business, and do something so she can be independent of this abusive husband. And so I left. I didn’t know if I had any impact. And then in December of that year, I got these little greeting cards in the mail, and they were Christmas greeting cards and they were all made by hand. And these women had started a little cooperative where they had created these little things. And then there was a little sign that said, ‘by the way, we buy a metro card by selling things.’ So it was their path to independence. So in each case, you really have to look at the situation of what’s going on.
ABM: Well of course, I mean that’s why, take a specific example – again, it can be that any kind of conflict, the conflict in Syria, we know what it’s all about. I mean, we know the conflict between, and facing a group of Israeli women, they all have pretty much suffered the same thing. The same problem, same elements, same issues. And so there’s no question, how you address such a group of women from Palestine is going to be different than how you address a group of women coming from Scandinavia, needless to say. But my point here is that, this is precisely what’s missing. That is, women themselves in my view—I could be wrong, please correct me—have not developed perhaps the confidence that they can in fact have that power and they can project it. And we need people like yourself and many others who’ll come out and scream and shout, ‘we’ve got what it takes, let’s exhibit it, let’s get it out of it.’ I think that voice is missing.
ABM: That voice is missing.
DK: Right. I mean, look at America, right? A hundred years ago we didn’t have the right to most anything. No right to vote, no right to higher education, no right to own a bank account. And black women were enslaved, blacks were enslaved, and it was women who stepped into the fray, unafraid, and said, ‘why is a black man enslaved?’ And you know the abolitionist movement began and then slowly and gradually, that grew into the right to vote and grew into the suffragette movement, where women were saying, ‘wait a minute, we’re Christians and we were always told that we were created in the divine image. But yet the state says all men are created equal, and how come we are left out?’ So once again, they looked at the hypocrisy of what was going on in this country. And then the church had been quiet for so many years when it came to slavery. Right? Why was a black man enslaved for so many years? Was this a Christian thing? How is it that Christianity justified enslavement of black people for so many years? But it took these women who were devout Christians, who kind of delved into it very deep, and they got to the kernel of the idea. And they basically said, ‘no more.’ And they started organizing, they started making these mitts where they were talking to each other, like knitting things and saying, and this organizing grew and their husbands who wanted to do something but didn’t know how to go up against the status quo, got empowered by their own wives. They started organizing with other men. And slowly but gradually, the emancipation of slavery happened, and it happened because of women. It would have never happened in this country because no man would have dared to go against it. There were six or seven presidents that were slave owners. They never dared to do anything about it. So the problem is these women get written out of history books because nobody takes them seriously. And how many people know about the suffragette movement except the women that, women like me who study these women to get inspired by them?
ABM: But the question is, why do we take this into, and make it so that everybody understands the role of the women? I mean, this is exactly what you’re saying. How many people actually are fully aware of what you just said? How many women, and men for that matter, unless we studied as many of us did study.
DK: Right. Right.
ABM: That that particular era and what the women have done. What I’m, you know, my focus today being conflict resolution, and I feel like I started with this discussion. I want to see more and more women getting involved in the search for solutions. And that’s why I’m asking this question, is how do you address these women when you tell them, take a specific group, by generally similar culture, similar ideas, and you want to inspire them to do something about it. And this is really where I’m coming from. I’m searching for avenues.
DK: So I’ll tell you something. One of the most powerful things that works with Muslim women, when you were talking about if you’re in front of a thousand people what would you say, is that Muslim women around the world take it for granted that American women have had all these rights for all these years, because America is the vanguard of human rights and we talk about it. And so when I go in there and say, a hundred years ago in the United States women didn’t have this right, this right, this right, this right. And in seventh century Arabia, women got these rights, these rights, these rights, these rights, these rights. So we compare the two, and it’s stunning to women that somehow American women today have attained all these rights that they didn’t have. But yet Muslim women who got these rights in the seventh century, all of these rights have been stripped away from them. So then I tell them what is possible because of what women’s movements were able to do and how they have been able to advance. And so when they see that other people have succeeded, they take strength from that and then they can model their own success around that and model their own initiatives around that. So sometimes people just need to see inspiring stories of what is possible. And especially when it comes to Islam, they look at Christian models, Jewish models, because we’re the youngest faith and it’s always easier for us to look at what the Christian women do, what are Jewish women doing, and what can Muslim women do to model their struggle because the struggles are the same, only the situation is slightly different. And the era might be different but it’s the same exact struggles. So whether it’s women’s rights or whether it’s conflict in societies, I think that women have a significant role to play.
ABM: There’s no question. So, thank you so much. I really appreciate it because, let’s just switch it a little bit to the phenomenon we’re living through now—radicalization and how women are also recruited for this horrifying cause so to speak, be that ISIS and others. Where do you see, from your perspective, what attracts women to join these types of groups?
DK: Yeah. So most people think that women have just one or two factors to join, but our research shows that men and women have similar motivations for them to join, especially millennial women who are growing up in Western societies. They really have grown up with this notion that they can create a change, just like every millennial thinks they can create a change within their society. So some of it is driven by wanting to topple the tyrannies, and like, ‘let’s topple some tyrannies.’ And another factor might be there’s too much injustice around the Muslim world and no one’s doing anything about it, and I can do something about it. And that’s another motivation. The other motivation is, I am oppressed in my own society. I don’t belong here. Everybody thinks that I come from a misogynist faith, and on the other side I’m being offered comfort and sisterhood and brotherhood and that’s where I belong. And another factor is, I don’t have agency. I have overbearing parenting, and I am an individual, and I have the right to do what I want to do. And the other side is offering that you can do whatever you want if you come here. So there are all these different motivations, and they vary from culture to culture or society to society, individual to individual. And it’s very complex, but really the root of it is that people want to create a change and they think that somehow ISIS is offering them a solution, and then they join that group. And when they arrive there, they realize that they’ve made the biggest error of their life. But it’s too late because then there’s no exit for them. So it’s a really tragic story, because these people are getting recruited with all kinds of promises and a wonderful future. But then they discover that when they get there, they’re actually trapped. So this is why we’re doing the work that we’re doing, is we wanted to really unearth this whole phenomenon of how people are being recruited at the ground level and what promises they are being made so we can show people clearly, this is what you’re being told, and this is actually false, with real evidence, with real research, where they can see it for themselves so we can prevent somebody else from joining. And those who are in jail can be rehabilitated, with real evidence.
So, we’re launching a big project called Wise Up: Knowledge Ends Extremism, because we believe that there’s a knowledge gap and there’s a lot of confusion. And with the spread of Internet and social media, it’s very easy to peddle falsehood and make it seem like it’s real, so fake news becomes real news. So people cannot decipher anymore what Islam is and what it’s not because it’s being given to you in bite sized information and it’s being propagandized in such a way that you really think it’s true. So it’s the work of people like me, and the scholars around me, that have to come together to show the truth versus the falsehood, and how this falsehood can destroy your life forever. Not only destroy your life, it destroys your siblings’ lives, it destroys your parents’ lives, it destroys your entire family. So you’re not the only one who’s getting destroyed, because the stigma is so great for a family whose child has gone, that they became isolated from society. So it’s a really, really tragic, tragic situation. But I hope that with this campaign that we’re rolling out nationally as well as internationally, that we’ll be able to at least influence.
ABM: So if you were to describe the campaign in a few sentences, what it is and what you’d like to achieve.
DK: So, we are publishing a book, a 400 page book, which has all the research in it. So one can just – and it’s written in a very easy, accessible way. Then there will be a website that people can go onto so they can find information. There will be a campaign, which we will be doing around the country where we will to have face-to-face conversations with people so people can—
ABM: So who is your target audience?
DK: We have multiple target audiences. The terrorists have all kinds of target audiences, and they message out to different people. So similarly, we’ve also designed this toolkit for multiple audiences, and we have families in mind because families are struggling. We have young people in mind because they’re wrestling with this information. We have the policymakers in mind because they’re making policy. We have religious leaders in mind because religious leaders can inspire people and clarify information. We have interfaith audiences in mind because they are our greatest advocate; they need the tools from us. And we have the general public in mind because the general public, if they perceive that Islam inherently is a religion that has certain issues or promotes violence, they need to be told—
ABM: So you talk about the public, and also talking about the public outside this country, in the Arab world.
DK: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
ABM: That’s what you’re talking about.
DK: Yeah, well I’m talking about the American general public, but I’m also talking about the general public as in the global community, because I have been traveling and already people are telling me, ‘please, we need to translate this into our language. You know, we really desperately need this.’ So we want to translate it into Arabic, into various languages – French and other languages – where people can take this tool and use it in their own communities. I had a imam in France who told me, ‘this needs to become an application so I can make sure all my kids have it downloaded, so when a recruiter comes they know the difference.’ So this is the level that we need to get to. But we could not have done this by ourselves. We are a woman-led organization committed to peace building, but we worked with 60 other scholars and imams and experts and Muslims and non-Muslims to put this tool kit together.
ABM: Great. I wanted you to speak about this, give it a little promotion.
DK: Yeah. It’s called Wiseupreport.org, and we will be launching on October 26 in Washington D.C., and then we’ll be going around the country.
ABM: Terrific. Thank you so much.
DK: Thank you so much.
Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Jonathan Cristol, fellow of the World Policy Institute in New York City and a senior fellow at Bard College Center for Civic Engagement. Dr. Cristol is a noted expert in Middle Eastern policies and international security. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode. So, many things are happening in the Middle East today. Some time, specifically the last few weeks, I’ve been focusing on the humanitarian dimension of the various crisis. But if we were to leave this aside, the interesting development today is between Israel and the Arab world. Again, notwithstanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as such, things have happened. And I believe that Iran is the main culprit quote-unquote behind, is changing attitudes of the Arab states, specifically the Gulf states, towards Israel. What is your reading on this? How do you read that development?
Jonathan Cristol: Well, I think that it is a generally positive development. It’s a fortunate byproduct of Iranian expansionism in the region. And I think that particularly in the Gulf, which have never really cared too much about the Palestinians in general anyway, it is a very convenient and probably necessary excuse or reason for them to develop intelligence relationships with Israel, security relationships with Israel, because Israel isn’t and hasn’t been for really I think quite some time, their primary security concern. I think it’s a byproduct of the Iran deal primarily, which I supported at the time and support to this day. But I do think that the deal itself did result in a relatively more aggressive Iran in the region, because I think that some of the critique—
ABM: You say more aggressive because of the deal?
JC: I think that some of the conservative criticisms of the deal were correct, I just reached a different conclusion about the deal itself than some of the critics. I think that the Obama administration was, as long as Iran did not develop nuclear weapons, was willing to let it get away with more than it might otherwise would have. Now that’s a very tough call, and I think I would have made that decision too. So, I’m not saying that it shouldn’t have done it. But I do think that it freed—it was a much better deal for Iran to be less isolated and a non-nuclear power, than to be a nuclear power that was completely isolated. And I think that it certainly didn’t create new desires and new—it didn’t change what Iran wanted. But I think that they could push out in Syria and Yemen and other places without too much fear, at least under the Obama administration, that they would face any sort of crippling consequences.
ABM: Yeah, this is right. But when we talk about the Iran deal, it is true that the Obama administration was a little bit more easy on Iran on other issues for example, that Iran insisted not to incorporate into the deal, [such as] their development of long-range missiles, ballistic missiles. But the problem is that even though in my view, and see if you share the same view, in my view even though the Iran deal prevented Iran today from moving forward in development of a nuclear weapon, I don’t think they have given up the idea at all. That is, this is a respite for them. As one Iranian told me, he said, you know, we have a long history of 4,000 years continuing history. So what is ten years going to do? Ten years is going to pass, and we’re going to do whatever we want to do afterward. But you are right in suggesting the fact that the sanctions have mostly been lifted, freed Iran, and allowed Iran to strengthen itself economically to say the least. And in so doing, it has more cash available to continue to support its various extremist groups, just about everywhere.
JC: And I think that the 10-year period you mentioned is exactly right. I mean, this is another, again, a critique of the deal that I think was as accurate as well, that really what this did was buy 10 years and kick the problem down the road. I’ve read the deal a couple of times, the whole JCP [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. I have written about it a lot and it seems pretty—I’m not a physicist. I think that you really have to be a nuclear physicist, an expert in sanctions, and an expert in international politics to really put your head around it. And I don’t want to pretend to be any sort of physicist, but it does strike me that after about 10, maybe 12 years, they could do it if they wanted to. I am very lucky personally to not have any real responsibility for a nation or people, because I think it was a very tough call. I think it made sense for Obama to—I think kicking the problem a decade down and hoping that the political situation changes in that time to make it so that Iran would not develop a nuclear weapon was probably the best we were going to get. But I do think there are very smart people who were against it, and I understand why they might have been against it.
ABM: Well, several reasons in my view is one, the deal did not require Iran to dismantle or destroy its nuclear equipment. For example, two-thirds of the centrifuges were basically stored and became, just idle-ized them rather than destroyed them. Some of the facilities are just basically idle-ized, again, not destroyed. So, if they decide to restart, resume, research and development of a nuclear weapon, they have still the same facilities by and large almost intact. That is one of the I think big problems that I have with the deal, that we did not insist on eliminating, destroying that kind of technology, albeit they can still—they acquired it once, they can acquire it again. It takes a little more time.
JC: The other thing though that makes me a bit more—I’m not particularly optimistic in general, but I think one reason that Iran came to the table aside from sanctions was that the U.S. presence on both sides of them had decreased so much. And I think that if we look, it’s hard to judge 10 or 12 years ahead.
JC: So I think that there were two things that brought them to the table. There was the sanctions, and I think there was the perceived need from the significantly reduced U.S. troop presence on both of their borders also played a role. And so I think it made it easier for them to postpone at the very least the development of a nuclear weapon by a decade. And I suspect that Obama’s thinking was again, that this sort of politics of it would change. But I agree. I mean again, it was a temporary solution, but I at the time, and now still, I think probably the temporary was the best.
ABM: Yeah. But you mentioned reduction in troop deployments. From what I know, as a matter of fact, there are forces in Oman are pretty much the same, haven’t changed, the power that we have, with the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain is pretty much the same. But yes, there were some reductions and that was it. I think it was more symbolic than anything. And nobody talked about it openly and publicly; the Iranian got the message. That’s my understanding, but that was probably not the main motivation. But I think what you said initially is absolutely correct. Getting rid of the sanctions allows them now to focus on economic development, and allows them now to continue with their ambition to become the region’s hegemon, through without money they cannot do as much. And specifically because of their involvement in Iraq. I think Iran’s involvement in Iraq assumes priority. That is, if they wanted to consolidate their position in Iraq, wanted to consolidate their position in Syria, and continue their control over this crescent from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, they have the [unclear] good for them, timed it for them, to get rid of the pressure, to get rid of the sanctions, and they can focus on consolidating their hegemony in this crescent to begin with. And now they have an opportunity to further expand it and go to Yemen, and support other groups, other extremist groups. So I think it’s a strategic decision on their part, that it’s working.
JC: Yeah, no I think it has worked out very well for Iran. And I think that Saudi missteps have also worked out well for Iran particularly recently. I do think that they are—I think in Iraq it was an opportunity that they could not pass up, and I think in Iraq they will be the ultimate political victor. And in Yemen, I don’t think that’s the case because I think Yemen is a bit more of a war of choice for Iran and more of a war of necessity for Saudi Arabia. I think that the Saudis would, they fought for nine years at least to prevent an Egyptian and Soviet presence in Yemen, and that was less dangerous to them than an Iranian presence there. And so I think Saudi Arabia will fight to the last man. Of course it’s easier for them because it’s not their own people, but they’ll fight to the last of at least someone else’s men in a way Iran won’t.
ABM: I agree. I think Saudi Arabia is committed not to allow an Iranian presence in the entire Arabian Peninsula. That is just out of the question. And incidentally, this is also one of the reasons they are very upset with Qatar. Not as much as because Qatar is supporting various extremist groups – and we know they’ve been giving money to ISIS, they’ve been, certainly Muslim Brotherhood, certainly Hamas. Many, many groups. But primarily it’s because also Qatar is allowing foreign troops on its soil, other than American. American is a given, for granted. But to have Turkish troops, for Saudi Arabia that’s a no-no, because Erdogan is very competitive. He wants to have a say in Middle Eastern affairs, and establishing a little base, albeit small, in Qatar for him is a major achievement that runs totally contrary to the Saudi perceived interest in the area.
JC: And unfortunately for them, they have overplayed what I think was a fairly weak hand in the first place, and they may have resulted in an long time increased Turkish presence and closer relationship with Iran on the part of Qatar. So I think that the Saudis have not been as deft at handling their neighbors and Iran as they might otherwise have been. Maybe that’s to do with leadership changes in Saudi Arabia, but I’m not sure. It’s been a bit confusing to me as to how they have missed this, but it also could be the fault of the United States. I am always very hesitant to say everything revolves around the United States and that everything—but we see a Bloomberg report recently that the Emirati foreign minister said as much, that it was a result of Trump’s trip that they decided that they would coordinate an effort against Qatar. And so I think that there is probably some blame to be placed at the hand of the United States for what these states saw as a perceived green light, just like the perceived green light Saddam Hussein had in the 90s. So it’s—
ABM: Interestingly, this whole turn of events produces a new dynamic between Israel and the Arab world, so to speak, and I think that played very well into the hands of Netanyahu. As Netanyahu has always been talking about, we have peace, if we’re going to have peace between Israel and the Palestinians, it will have to be in the context of a regional peace. And what Iran, [unclear], other than the threat that Iran has posed and continues to support, is there was that opportunity. And I think the Saudis, the Israelis, and the other Gulf states are looking, there is now an opportunity to cooperate. And like you said, the Palestinian problem is not something that they are losing sleep over.
JC: No, nor have they ever really.
ABM: And as far as they’re concerned, Israel in fact is the power first in the forefront that can in fact oppose or stop Iran in its track, even before the United States can do anything about it. I mean, that’s what I’m told. For them, Israel is the power today in the region, second to none, that the Iranians will not try to cross. The Iranians will be very hesitant to try to intimidate the Israelis in a serious way, other than empty rhetoric as we hear time and again. But they will not take any significant steps to intimidate the Israelis. Where Israel feels really threatened, I think any perceived threat by the Israelis coming from Iran, they will not stand still. I don’t believe they will restrain themselves because any anything—if they tolerate that, it could have major negative repercussions.
JC: Yeah, I don’t worry as much about direct confrontation between Iran and Israel.
ABM: No, no, I agree. I don’t think this is in the offing.
JC: No, and Iran is as aware as anyone of the CSIS studies and other war games scenarios of conflict between Iran and Israel which is much, as physically smaller a state as Israel is, is a much more devastating conflict for Iran than Israel. And it’s not really survivable for Iran and is survivable for Israel. So I don’t think that they would do that. But of course they tried to undermine the Arab governments by their support for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the appeal to anti-Israel sentiment on the Arab street. And maybe one other—very little positive comes out of Syria, but of course the Syrian conflict has at least driven a temporary wedge between Hamas and Iran. So there does seem like there is in all of this mess, there is some alignment that could result in a wider pre—
ABM: I mean between.
JC: Between the Arab states, between the Gulf Arab States and Israel.
ABM: And Israel, yeah.
JC: I’m a little bit—it would make sense, but of course so much of the Middle East doesn’t make sense. Not everything that makes sense follows through. And I’m not sure about Netanyahu’s willingness to make whatever concessions he would need to make, even if they are minimal. But the other X-Factor, my other concern would be Mohammed bin-Salman, who people think of I think as being a potentially great reformer. They see him as a young reformer, so that. But when I see someone who is particularly young coming into power, I think that that is not necessarily a sign of liberalization or reform, sometimes it’s the exact opposite.
ABM: I agree with you. I mean he is only 30 years old. I think he’s 30.
JC: 30 or 31.
ABM: 31. He has had limited experience in—I mean his father appointed him to the Defense Minister. I don’t know how much he knows about military and defense.
ABM: I mean say, unlike say the new French president, who’s 39. He had been in government, has had some experience, is older—nine years makes a difference. But I am not, and I agree with you. I’m not so comfortable necessarily. I don’t wish the king to go anytime soon, but—
JC: Everyone dies, that’s the thing. And if this doesn’t happen—
ABM: Everyone dies. And even in five years, in ten years, he’s still very young. But the thing is, since when have we worried about who is running these countries? That’s the problem. I mean they’ve been running these countries in their own way, in their own system, in their own culture, with their own view of the world. And I think this is of course one of the reasons they’re attached to the United States. That is, they make mistakes, but the room for major mistakes on a regional and strategic base, they don’t make these types of mistakes.
JC: Well, they’ve been constrained in that by their relationship with the United States. But now the United States is not necessarily the greatest—there are ripples in, how do I say this. The predictability of the United States and the uncertainty factor of the current administration and the lack of senior officials to deal with this in the United States now, I think does make the potential for maybe not quite disaster, but it does change things a bit.
ABM: I think you’re right. I mean there’s—
JC: As we’ve seen already.
ABM: Yeah, there is the more perception than reality because especially defense, and issues related to national security here, and our alliances throughout the Middle East remain pretty much solid, even under the Trump administration. And that is why, because you have a national security advisor and you have a defense secretary who’ve been on the field, they understand what’s going on there, they understand who the players are, what is the interest. And they are holding the line. And I think the fact that he relies on them, on both of them in particular, it’s very important, their experience. So I don’t see any deterioration as far as United States’ commitment in terms of security to its allies in the Middle East. But you’re right in suggesting there’s the perception that the United States is unpredictable at this point. Nobody knows what Trump is going to do the next day. But in this area I think of security, I don’t think there’s going to be significant change. That’s how I’m reading it so far.
JC: No, I agree with that. But there, I would add a little bit though. Well first, I think we’ve seen in this situation in the Gulf that that’s exactly right so far, that Mattis and others have been able to push back in a way that actually the Saudis didn’t understand. I think the Saudis didn’t understand our system and thought it was a little bit more like their own system, and that if Trump was behind them, that they would be able to roll over Qatar and force an agreement very quickly. And I don’t think that they understood that even someone like Trump, who might like to be a strong man, is going to face pushback, that he isn’t going to be able to overcome or that he isn’t going to want to be able to overcome. And so I think that has been a constraining factor. And I’m very sure that you’re right, and that there won’t be any major changes to our alliances and to our security partnerships, but I don’t have the same level of certainty about that as I would have if anyone else were president, be it from Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders. So I think that there is—
ABM: Don’t mention Ted Cruz please. [laughs]
JC: I think that there’s an element of uncertainty that wasn’t there before. And so I think the likelihood of any sort of major disruption is very low, but I think it’s much higher than it has been in the past.
ABM: Let’s look at the whole region today. Now we have the ongoing Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq itself, and proxy war between the two in Yemen, to a great extent it’s still in Syria. That is ongoing, and I think you agree with me that this is not something that’s going to end anytime soon.
ABM: That is going to continue. Then you have the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been going on for some time now, seven decades. And then you have of course the situation with Iran. And then you have the conflict in Afghanistan, which is still going on. So you have all these multiple conflicts occurring, happening and evolving in the same time. When I look at it from a crisis management, when I look at it in terms of conflict resolution, I try to find some positive elements, how can we capitalize—this crisis can create this possibility that did not exist, had there not been a crisis. But this is the reality now in the Middle East, and let’s look at it and what we see. One thing that came out of it is the Saudis, the Gulf states, realize that Israel is not the enemy, that the real enemy is Iran, hence the closeness. Also I think the Palestinians are feeling the closeness between the Gulf states and Israel. That may impact on their position that they cannot hold on to that extreme position forever. They’re going to have to modify that, they’re going to have to think in terms of serious concessions, because they’re not going to get the automatic backing of the Arab world. Will that create a new opening for example between the Israelis and the Palestinians, if say even with the current Israeli government, from your perspective?
JC: I mean, I am reasonably skeptical about a resolution in the Israeli Palestinian conflict that isn’t imposed in some way. I’m actually not necessarily against a light imposition on the Palestinians particularly. I think one thing that the Palestinians, some of the positive aspects of the Palestinian Authority work against it in this context. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and other places where they exert total control over the media, one thing that we’ve seen, at least over the last six months or so, the Emirati state media in Arabic has basically stopped any sort of anti-Israel or anti-Semitic reporting or commentary. They can do that, and they can prepare their people in a loose kind of way, an indirect way, for the possibility of peace with Israel. The Palestinian Authority is more open. And first of all, they haven’t shown a strong desire to do that, but it will be much harder for them to do it even if they wanted to do it.
ABM: Well because they’ve been enslaved, as I was talking, writing today, enslaved to their own rhetoric.
ABM: They’ve been singing this song for so long, they don’t want to change that narrative so easily, especially when they see the prospect of getting significant concessions from the Netanyahu government is not there. But you mention impose. I personally do not believe that any power today, be that, which is really the United States you can talk about, and maybe the EU to some extent. Russia and China are not going to impose solutions on Israeli and the Palestinians, nor can really the EU for that matter. So you’re talking about only one power, which is the United States. Will the United States in fact be at any point willing – not able maybe, but willing – to impose solutions that Israelis are not willing to accept?
JC: Impose might be the wrong word. What I really mean by impose is not, I don’t mean that anyone would come and say, this is what it’s going to be, you should do it. What I do mean more of is, something like the Gulf states or someone going to Abbas, saying, look we need you to do this. There is going to be some sort of financial reward if you do, be as a society or personally. And if you don’t, there’s going to be some sort of penalty. That’s more of what I mean by imposition. A tough persuasion. Not a—
ABM: Not through coercion. Through incentive, and then there’s no question. I think the EU, I’ve been dealing with the EU as well as the United States coming to this. They’re talking more about incentives and more incentives, and linking certain concessions to specific gains, instead of talking about a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace. So they came to the realization that you’ve got to take steps, small steps, build on these small steps. But now that the Arab world is open and willing to pretty much—it is no longer secret that Saudi Arabia is dealing with Israel, the Qataris are dealing with Israel, that Abu Dhabi is dealing with Israel. Israeli businessmen are going with Israeli passports, and they are admitted without any questions asked. So I think these incremental steps that the United States in a position to persuade, cajole, maybe slight, a little pressure that that might adv- —and I mean that’s what I believe is going to be needed. And the EU in that regard can play a role, given that they’re the largest contributor to the Palestinians in terms financially, given their bilateral relation with Israel. Even though it’s not exactly a love affair, but it’s a matter of convenience between Israelis and the EU because of trade and everything else that’s going on, and also military sharing, intelligence-sharing, and security concerns. So I’m always looking at this dynamic is changing. I’m trying to figure out what else is there to do to engender from this.
JC: You know, the other aspect of the Iran thing is, the Iran thing is what’s pushing the Gulf States and Israel together. Also I think it makes it a little bit trickier for the Palestinians, who know probably better than anyone that the Gulf states have not been great supporters of theirs, but do know that they have, I guess depending on where you are politically among Palestinians, but do know that Iran has been much more supportive than the Gulf and so there’s a connection to Iran that they don’t have with the Gulf states. And so I do think that they would separate themselves from Iran very quickly if need be. But the Iran situation pushes both parties in different directions. I don’t think that, it’s a different relationship that they have.
ABM: Yeah. Let me switch a little bit to, just in the context of this Sunni-Shiite conflict, where it’s going to go. Just only in the context of ISIS’ defeat in Mosul, and let us say now Iraq would be freer from ISIS. That doesn’t mean of course the end of ISIS as we know it, but freer from actually having lost territories, territories been gained and all of that. And then the big issue that looms high as I see it is the continuing conflict within Iraq itself, between the Sunni and the Shiite, not from the outside. And here is where you have Iran and Saudi Arabia pretty much also waging that proxy war in Iraq itself. Now however that ISIS is out, the Sunnis, the Kurds have already made a decision. In fact, they’re going to have a referendum soon about independence. And regardless of the referendum, you can count on the fact that the Kurds in Iraq are out of the equation. They will never submit again to any central government, that’s not going to happen.
ABM: I mean, I was told this plain and simple, we’re not going to do that. And my feeling is the referendum will pass, and they will be declaring independence. It’s only a question of when at this point. I was told many times, we’re waiting to see what’s going to be with ISIS. And now they can see the end of ISIS there, that’s the reason why they planned this referendum. Then, what is going to be the plight of the Sunnis who have suffered so much, specifically under the Maliki government? What is his solution? You know, I’ve been trying to, in the search for a solution, speaking to various Arab, you know, ambassadors from Iraq, other people who know what is going to happen, because I don’t see an end to the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq itself unless there is a probably a much more regional settlement between the two sects in Islam. What do you see, how do you see that?
JC: One of many great quotes in George Kennan’s American Diplomacy is when he says something like, the map of the world is not, should not, and cannot be a fixed and static thing. And I was very sympathetic to the Biden plan and separation of Iraq into three states. I was always a little bit, I understand the kind of general psychic resistance on planet Earth to those sort of arrangements, but I’ve never been quite sure why that should be off the table. For the Kurds it’s certainly not off the table, and I don’t think that there is a particular end in sight between the Sunnis and Shias in the south. And I’m also not someone who sees this as part of some sort of thousand-year-old conflict, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real conflict today. It’s I think a post ‘79 type of conflict, but it’s still real and it still can’t be, it can’t be—
ABM: I think it is fed by historical—
JC: Right, but it didn’t exist in the way it exists now, but the history of it and the situation makes it a very intractable sort of problem. But an intractable problem doesn’t mean it has no solution either. I think that there will have to be some, even if it is not three separate states, that there are other sort of systems like the UAE, which isn’t separated in the same way. But you can have autonomous regions that reasonably function together, even if they have very different characteristics within them. I think that those sort of situations are what should really be explored. Now in the immediate term and on a day-to-day basis, that doesn’t really help anybody. But, I’m not sure that there is a great answer for the short-term day-to-day.
ABM: No, but I do agree with you. I mean we’ve been saying, I think there is probably no real, no other solution unless the Sunnis in Iraq get some form of autonomous rule. It just won’t happen. But as you well know, there are dry, three provinces. Not much there.
JC: That was the next thing I was going to—
ABM: Yeah, and they need to sort of work out some kind of a solution to get some revenue from oil. Be that some from the Kurds, some from the South, yeah.
JC: And one of the problems with that is that the Kurds, one of the reasons for the Kurds pushing independence now is that they have Kirkuk, which isn’t part of their three provinces that they’re designated in terms of the autonomous region, and they want more than the 18 percent of oil revenue that they get under the current agreement. And so if they declare independence, they’ll get all of that oil revenue. So they want more, and then the Sunnis would have as you say a dry area. But all of those things can’t happen at once. So I do think there would have to be some sort of arrangement that really is in everyone’s interest in terms of stability and investment, that does divert income into that region until there is stability, until there is peace enough that they could do what other states have done that don’t have oil, or like Dubai, which many people don’t realize developed the way it did because they didn’t have the oil wealth that Abu Dhabi did, or to make plans for a post-, the states that have made plans for a post-oil future like Bahrain, and like Oman is doing now with tourist development and states that are looking to what happens next. So Iraq, the Sunni part over time could skip the oil part and kind of look for other ways.
ABM: Well, it’s not going to be easy.
JC: No, it’s very long term.
ABM: Because I mean to start with, they do need revenue.
ABM: Where are they going to get it? They may get some support from the outside world, but they need serious revenue. And from a psychological, practical perspective, this is their land and they have a legitimate right to claim a part of their own revenue coming from oil. And my understanding from the Kurds, actually the Kurds don’t mind to contribute.
JC: No, no.
ABM: They want to contribute in terms of providing revenue to the Sunnis from their own oil production, because they would like to see an end to the conflict between the Sunni and the Shiite, which is affecting them in one form or another.
JC: It’s not an unreasonable proposition to basically trade money for stability.
ABM: Yeah. And that’s what the Kurds are thinking in terms of this. We will give some, but they are waiting to see now things start to settle as far as Mosul is concerned. Finishing the cleanup of the area to see they will declare independence, I’m sure it’s a question of when. And they will be looking for ways and means to stabilize the surrounding, and because also they are now impacted by what’s going on in Turkey, with the Kurds in Turkey, and they are also impacted by what’s going on with the Kurds in Syria itself. And they’re now going to have to start to navigate their position in connection with these three areas, not to speak of the Kurds in Iran.
JC: And they will also want to make sure that a Sunni area does not become closely tied to Turkey, and does not become a hotbed of extremism. So they certainly have an interest in helping to stabilize those.
ABM: Oh yeah, yeah. Now, I think I agree with you. I mean, they all have one thing in mind, and that is Turkey. All of these countries in the region, including Israel mind you, although there is no connection as far as Sunni-Shiite is concerned, but they all do not want Turkey to be in the middle of their own affairs.
JC: Which is understandable. I wouldn’t want Turkey in the middle of my own affairs either.
ABM: So what they’re doing, they’re doing everything they can. And that’s, I mention this because that starts with the Kurds themselves. The Kurds are, as you well know there was no relationship between the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, it was very acrimonious for a long, long time. But then Erdogan came to the conclusion there’s really not much he can do with the Kurds in Iraq. And they started trade and now they have basically a good relationship. But he’s still fearful about how that might translate once this Syrian conflict is settled. Because the Kurds in Syria already declared, already established their autonomous rule. They are not waiting for settlement, this is what we’re going to do. So we have now to watch I think in the future, how Turkey’s going to maneuver in the region and the extent to which Erdogan wants to assert himself. And so far, he’s been successful in a very limited way. But I think what we’ll probably be witnessing is the unfolding of this rivalry now, is going to be between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran for regional hegemony.
JC: I think that that’s exactly right. But I think that Turkey will end up being a state that is always kind of poking at both of those sides. I think that it’s Iran and Saudi Arabia that is really the axis of regional, it’s not exactly a cold war, it’s a hot, lukewarm war in the region, and Turkey is kind of always going to be annoying both sides to some degree, and always trying to wedge its way in. But I think that ultimately it will not be as much of a player in that region as it would like to be, and as much as Iran or the GCC.
ABM: I think you’re right. I think what’s going to make a difference also is a change of government. That is, once Erdogan departs the political scene.
JC: Or Planet Earth. Because those two things might happen simultaneously at some point in the distant future.
ABM: When will Turkey continue with this current path. And that’s going to depend on the new government in Turkey. I mean, he too is not going to last forever. So we’re going to have to see, but I think we should be in tune to Turkey trying to assert itself in various ways, but it’s going to be stopped and—
JC: And that’s also an interesting one for the United States, because in many ways I think we have a much better relationship with most of the Arab states, certainly with Israel, than we do with Turkey. But Turkey is actually the only one of those which we are treaty bound to defend, and which is a formal defense ally. And that makes I think things very, very difficult for us.
ABM: This is difficult also because the United States unfortunately, not just President Trump, but Obama throughout this period, knowing how disruptive, destructive Erdogan is, and his policies and his purge in his own country, systematically chipping away from Turkish democracy that he himself promoted during his first and second terms, which is ironic. And now he’s becoming more and more Islamist, he abandoned the idea because he chose to, becoming a member of the EU, that’s not going to happen. But the United States, exactly because of what you said, unfortunately is letting him get away with quote-unquote murder. And that is a problem. That is a problem, because he’s encouraged, he’s basically holding the West hostage because of where we, because of the geostrategic role that Turkey can play both in Europe as well as in the Middle East.
JC: And what’s particularly unfortunate about it is that Turkey is well-placed in general to actually bring all these sides together. If you had a different Turkish government, it actually could bridge the sides and play a very constructive role in the region instead of just someone needling everyone.
ABM: Exactly. And finally, here is a country that started with zero problems with neighbors. I keep saying the same song, now he’s got a problem with every neighbor.
JC: Yeah, right.
ABM: All right. Thank you, this is terrific.
Alon Ben-Meir: I’m Alon Ben-Meir, and this is ‘On the Issues.’ My guest today is Ambassador Teuta Sahatqija, Consul General of the Republic of Kosovo in New York. Prior to her appointment as Consul General, she was a parliamentarian in Kosovo’s Assembly, and has a professional and academic background in electronic engineering. You can find her full bio on the page for this episode.
Now I was asking about whether there’s a prospect of Kosovo becoming a state, I mean, officially at the United Nations as a member state.
Teuta Sahatqija: We are waiting for increasing the number of recognitions. Up to now, Kosovo is recognized by 114 countries. It’s more than half of countries, it’s about 60 percent of countries who recognize the Republic of Kosovo. But we are still working to increase the number. And we are planning to have 120, up to 130 and then apply to membership to the United Nations. We have been also suggested from many members of UN to apply for observer mission. But we think that up to now, we are discussing both possibilities. But up to now, in the meantime we are working, when we apply, to apply for full membership and not only for observer membership.
ABM: Right. Now who is the main obstacle for membership? What country or countries for that matter?
TS: The obstacle is that we need to pass the Security Council. The Security Council needs to approve the candidacy.
ABM: So of the five permanent members, who is against it?
TS: We assume that there might be from Russia an obstacle, although we never applied. So in fact we do not know whether Russia will oppose it or not. But in the meantime, we are having a goal to achieve the biggest number of recognition and then to apply.
ABM: I see. But what is the reason, I mean 114 is a lot, many countries.
TS: It is, indeed.
ABM: Yeah, I mean, so why haven’t you applied, that’s the question, if you’re not sure. You’re not certain about the Russian position, right?
TS: No, we are not certain.
ABM: There were no back channels to find out if they are ready, willing?
TS: Officially we do not know that.
ABM: I see. But do you know? Unofficially?
TS: Officially we do not know that. But our plan is for us to go with a bigger number of recognition, and then when we apply, to apply with a certain security that we will pass that without any obstacles. In the meantime, we have other goals—goal to apply for UNESCO, for Interpol, and for some other agencies of UN and some other international organizations, and then to have the portfolio that is much stronger as a state, then to apply.
ABM: So what’s the position of this administration? Of the Trump administration in this regard?
TS: The Trump administration in regard of recognition of Kosovo is very strong for recognition. And I want to thank Ambassador Haley that in each and every session of the Security Council when there is a discussion about UNMIK report, she or a representative of the US always called for recognition of Kosovo from other countries, and for membership of Kosova in the United Nations. So in regard of Kosovo becoming a member of UN or raising the number of recognition, the current administration does not have any differences from other administrations.
ABM: But in the same token, you do have a majority in the General Assembly.
TS: In the General Assembly.
ABM: If you have 114 out of roughly—
TS: We have a majority, but before going to the General Assembly, the Security Council is the organization who has to approve that also.
ABM: But the General Assembly can bestow observer status, but you don’t want the observer status.
TS: We are still in discussion whether to apply for observer status. Observer status can be achieved much easier. But we are still thinking and working on that to decide what is best for the meantime. We think that when we apply, we should apply for full membership.
ABM: I see. Ok, I mean, I know, sometimes like an intermediate step is to get observer state. You are already halfway there. And then, but—
TS: There are some countries who are in halfway for 25 years.
ABM: I know that, yeah. You’re right. So as far as, just one more question about this. As far as you know, Britain, France, China would support Kosovo’s membership?
TS: Britain, France, the US—
ABM: Those who hold the P3 power?
TS: Yes, P3 is very strong.
ABM: So the only uncertainty is Russia, as far as you’re concerned.
TS: We officially do not know that, but according to sessions of the Security Council when there is a report of UNMIK, we can see the stand of Russia that still needs to be evaluated.
ABM: Right, right. I suppose once the US-Russian relations are restored to some kind of normalcy, which is really crazy right now, there may be some discussion.
TS: We do not have anything against, and we believe strongly that Russia does not have anything against Kosovo. And I have to remind you also that when the UN designated Martti Ahtisaari for representatives to draft the future status of Kosovo, Russia was the one who collaborated very strongly in drafting this report. And as you know this report of President Martti Ahtisaari was immediately translated to our constitution. So I think that Russia also has a great deal of contribution in drafting our constitution, in drafting these, but at the very latest moment, Russia, Serbia, and some of those states didn’t vote for that document. But their work is incorporated in our laws, in our constitution, and from the constitution.
ABM: But obviously Serbia is the main antagonist, or the main opponent. I know the relationship has been improving to some extent, but it remains the main obstacle, wouldn’t you say?
TS: Definitely. Before commenting more to difficulties, I would like to state that there are more than 30 agreements that we reached in dialogue with Serbia. We have integrated border management that controls the mutual border between Kosovo and Serbia. We have liaison offices in Pristina and in Belgrade that is an ambassadorial level. We have an agreement for free movement, agreement about recognition of car plates, agreement about recognition of diplomas. We have an agreement with Serbia about telecom and as a result, now Kosovo from March has its own telephone number in ITU. We are in the vicinity to achieve an agreement about energy. So there are a lot of agreements—
ABM: But not yet recognition.
TS: But I think that recognition will have to wait. But in the meantime, I have to state that Serbia, although we are in dialogue and now we are neighbors and there is a strong commitment for continuing that dialogue and being together in European Union, Serbia is still with one leg in a previous century and making a lot of obstacles for Kosovo to become member of different organizations, or toward recognition that I think in one hand is damaging Kosovo of course because it’s slowing the pace of Kosova. But in the other hand, I think that Serbia, from president to institution, does not have enough strength to move forward from Milosevic-era mentality and to move with both legs toward European Union values of good neighborhood, values of peace and other. And I think that this lack of strength from institutions of Serbia is in fact long-term damaging exactly Serbia’s youth and people.
ABM: Yeah, absolutely. So what is right now the main objection of Serbia? I mean sooner or later I don’t think they expect Kosovo to go back to before the war. That’s not going to happen.
TS: Of course, it will never happen.
ABM: So it will never happen. So what it is, I guess it is similar to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you might say. They know they’re stuck. They know they have to recognize each other, but they haven’t, even after 70 years. Do we expect something along these lines between Kosovo and Serbia? I mean, what is the main objection that Serbia has today, given what you just said? In thirty different areas there is a great deal of cooperation.
TS: Improvement, yes.
ABM: There is improvement. So how do you identify the main—what is it that Serbia would like to see happen other than— Are they demanding reunification?
TS: I don’t think that even the biggest dreamer in Serbia can dream that Kosovo will join Serbia ever. But I think that there is a lack of strength, of leadership, in Serbia to tell the truth to its people that Kosovo is gone, and let’s move forward. But you mentioned the relationship between Israel and Palestine. I think that there is a very big difference between Serbia and Kosovo. We are under the dialogue, under the European Union umbrella, the dialogue for normalization of relations between these two states. And the other thing that is different from Israel and Palestine is that both countries are working very hard to one day to become a member of the European Union. And I think that membership in European Union is that strong bond and strong interest of both countries, that we strongly believe that will overcome the differences and animosities that Kosovo and Serbia have. In fact, Kosovo does not have anything against Serbia, and we consider Serbia is our neighbor, as it is, and we are for normalization of relations because if it will not occur, then none of our states can progress toward the European Union. That’s the difference. And that’s the beauty of these relations that have a hope, that have an idea, and have means how to achieve normalization, and through normalization to benefit both countries becoming members of the European Union.
ABM: Yeah, but in this regard when we talk about the EU, now if there is any kind of direct or indirect discussion with the EU about potential membership in the EU, don’t you think the EU can play a role that is inducement, saying to Serbia, being that Kosovo and Serbia would want to have that kind of membership. Don’t you think the EU can play the—inducing Serbia and Kosovo to say, look, if you manage your affairs, you recognize one another, then the door will be wider open in terms of membership in the EU. Was this kind of discussion taking place?
TS: This discussion is not very explicitly said, but implicitly it was mentioned many times. Especially some of the ambassadors of Germany and high officials of Germany were very frank, saying that Serbia will become a member of European Union when they recognize Kosovo. But in the meantime, since we are still in progress, I think that this issue that should be the top issue at the end of this process can wait. So in the meantime, it is important to normalize relations to achieve as many agreements as we can to strengthen our borders, to cooperate in different areas. And when it comes, and it will take some years to complete membership in European Union, that at the end, I think that Europe does not have any interest to import any kind of conflict, of problem, of unsolved situation. So that’s why we believe that European Union has that possibility to help not only Kosovo and Serbia to straighten their relations, but also to be clear that no previous conflicts can enter into the European Union.
ABM: Right. Now what are—there are a number of chapters, 35 different chapters to be admitted to the EU. What is the kind of progress Kosovo is making to meet, without dealing as yet with Serbia, to meet the European standards? Do you feel that if negotiations were to start today, commence today between the EU and Kosovo, how many of these chapters you think it would have been easily met?
TS: Yeah. Oh thank you for this question. Kosovo immediately after the war started with new laws that was under the administration of U.N. after 2008. And after 2008, many of these so-called regulations were turned to laws of Republic of Kosova. And being a former member of parliament of Kosova, I know that each and every law had to pass compatibility with a key communautaire, or now with a key of the European Union.
TS: So before entering to force, it passed several stages of control. First was a control within the government, and the Ministry of European Integration would check whether this certain law is meeting directives of the European Union. And when that law came to parliament, then the Committee on European Integration that I was, my previous job was the chair of the European Union Committee, had the duty to check whether each and every amendment or the articles of the certain law is meeting the European Union regulations. So all our laws are in fact compatible with a key of European Union. This is one of our security that the legislation is compatible. Another thing that is that we are cooperating very heavily with the European Union mission who is in Kosovo, in Pristina, and with EU lacks the biggest ever European Union law mission anywhere in the world. And then—
ABM: Yeah, but there’s no ambassador of the EU in Pristina. Is there an ambassador of—
TS: Yes, yes.
ABM: Full-fledged ambassador?
TS: It is a mission.
ABM: It’s a mission, ok, yeah.
TS: And it is an ambassadorial level. And what is important is that in rule of law, in economic development, in our cultural heritage, in education, in women empowerment, and in many other fields, the European Union is heavily involved with the government of Kosova, with the NGO sector, with other organizations, very closely working with parliament that also secure that in all fields, Kosova is preparing itself so when it comes time for application, I think that many of the chapters will be automatically met since we have been working together for 14 years.
ABM: So you might say then the process has started, albeit not officially.
ABM: So there is a process of trying to meet all the EU requirements. Now to what extent—my understanding is that Turkey has a problem with that. What do you think the Turkish position is on Kosovo’s membership in the EU, when in fact Turkey does not have that, is no longer really considered a viable candidate for membership. Is there any kind of exchange, conflict with Turkey in this regard?
TS: The Republic of Kosovo and Turkey do not have any issue in relations with European Union that can put in conflict these two countries. I think that in relation to Turkey—
ABM: No, but the bilateral relations between Kosovo and Turkey.
TS: Bilateral relations between Kosovo and Turkey are good relations in economy, are good relation in education, in many fields. But when it comes to the European Union, I think that both countries have distinctive, different paths towards European Union. We are in dialogue with Serbia. In 2015, we signed the agreement for stabilization and association that brought Kosovo one step further and helping the Kosovar economy to be more compatible to European Union economy. And so I don’t think that we can talk about any kind of conflict that these two countries have because of the European Union.
ABM: Yeah, I’m just not sure because I looked at the list. Has Turkey recognized Kosovo?
TS: One of the firsts.
ABM: It did recognize Kosovo early on, that’s right. Yeah. OK. So in that regard there is no specific issue of concern between the two countries, right, right. Now last time, we spoke about the internal conditions in Kosovo itself, and I must tell you I’ve learned a great deal from you because in certain areas I had a different kind of impression. But I’d like to revisit some of these issues, in terms of how the Kosovo government is dealing with radicalization. What are the steps that have been taken in the last few years, say from the time ISIS came to being? What are some of the specific steps that the Kosovo government has taken in order to mitigate the phenomenon of radicalization from within the country itself?
TS: Yes. I think that the radicalization is not a domestic issue of Kosova. Unfortunately, it is a global issue that is tackled all world. And unfortunately there have been many attacks – we saw in Manchester, in Britain, in Germany, in Paris, in Nice, and in many countries. I cannot say we are fortunate because it’s not fortune to see that happening somewhere else, but in Kosovo it never happened, any kind of these attacks. In Kosovo it started with some, after the war, we were not even aware about the influence that certain NGOs from the east that came after the war, that they can have that impact. So slowly, as in many other countries, these NGOs started to grow the number of people and started to have the influence. But I think that our government and before government, society, NGO sector, and I have to say also the parliamentarians were those who raised the voice early; they raised the voice in 2011 in 2012. It was also myself and my fellow parliamentarians, especially women, who raised their voice and asked the government to be more aware about these phenomena. And fortunately, this phenomenon has been taken very seriously. In 2015, parliament passed the law that prohibits Kosovar citizens from participating in foreign wars. To tell the truth, I was also a member of parliament and I voted happily for that law. I didn’t think that this law can stop people who want to participate in—
ABM: No, no, it doesn’t stop—
TS: But after that, after this law passed, there were zero citizens of Kosova who went to foreign wars. There were people who returned. So this was only one mean to tackle this issue. Another was to freeze the funds from those NGOs who are supporting young people of Kosovo to go to foreign wars. There were some imams who have been expelled out of our borders of Kosova, and those who were Kosovo citizens were imprisoned. Then Kosova became a member of a global alliance, anti-ISIS. Another issue is that the government took a series of actions to work in rehabilitation of those who are returning. In education, in curricula, in helping also the NGO sector to tackle and to work with youth to prevent radicalization of young people. Another thing that is also important for Kosova and who might be one of reasons who causes these young people to think about foreign wars was also that Kosovo is still the only country in the European continent that does not have visa liberalization. And not being able to travel to see, to exchange views, and with our passport being able only to travel to Albania and Turkey and east was also one of issues that might cause these young people to look toward the east. But all these issues have been tackled, and we are strongly working first in prevention. Our police were declared as the best police in region. Alliance, anti-ISIS and other measures are measures for preventing or stopping. But this is not the only one. Another long-term and most important is working in education, working in economic development, that will provide the work, the job for people, and not allowing their unhappiness to turn them to look toward the east and other. So these are some of the measures that our government—but what is good it’s not only governmental issues.
ABM: So civil society is involved in this process.
TS: Yes, very heavily.
ABM: Now, to the best of your knowledge, in recent months, are there any Kosovars who actually went nevertheless and joined other radicals, be that ISIS, al-Qaeda, or other?
TS: Up to 2015, there were three hundred and something Kosovars who went. And unfortunately, that served many to use these political mathematics and to declare Kosovo with the highest number of people who went there. But if we use—
ABM: In relative terms.
TS: Yes, of course. And with 2 million population, you cannot play with political mathematics. If we use another mathematics, we can say that from 2015, Kosovo is a country that have zero percent per capita who went to foreign wars.
ABM: How many of the three hundred men came back?
TS: I can find that number and—
ABM: I mean roughly, to the best of your knowledge.
TS: I can see here that there are still 60 or 70 Kosovars who are still involved there. 50 were reported to have been killed. The rest are reported to have returned to Kosovo or have fled to Turkey and other countries.
ABM: But how many of them who actually came to Kosovo have been identified and went through a process of rehabilitation? Because you talk about rehabilitation. Because I’m very interested in that kind of process. That is, if you identified 10, 20, 30, or 40 who actually came back that were identified. How many of them have been identified and went through a rehabilitation process?
TS: I cannot say the exact number, although I can find and provide you with that. But I think that the importance is not a priority of working toward these numbers, whether they are 50 or 100 or I don’t know. I think the biggest importance is to work to prevent others to think and to go there, because working with those who have been returned is like working with somebody who is ill and you try to cure. But more important is not to allow others to be influenced or to think about that. And in this manner, I think that Kosovo’s government and institutions and NGO sector are really doing a great job.
ABM: But sometimes a rehabilitated individual could in fact become a role model for others and prevent them from—because they he or she can say I was there.
ABM: I’ve seen the misery. I see what ISIS is all about. And I must tell you this is the wrong thing to do. Did you have that kind of experience of rehabilitated people who met other young Kosovars and say to them, this is the wrong thing to do and we can share with you our own experiences? Did you have that kind of—?
TS: Yes definitely, you can find a number of declarations from people who have been there, who return, and who are telling about time that they spent, about the atrocities, about them being in fact – that they weren’t not being able to know where they were going, and now they came and they are totally against what happened there, and tell other young people that it is not the good thing to go there, because they had a very bad time. There were also some women who went there with children, and fortunately they are now back. And our media was full of these stories. Telling people not to go because it is not good. It is not our fight. It is not values that we are sharing among ourselves.
ABM: Yeah. I mean, I’m glad to hear this. I want to ask you though, the kind of counter narrative that Kosovars are engaged in, to counter the narrative of the various Islamist groups, the radicals, what sort of narrative? I mean, is there a concerted effort on the part of the Kosovar government to counter the narrative of the extremist in any systematic way?
TS: Definitely. And when we’re talking about extremism, I think that telling that Islamic extremism or any kind of extremism is something that goes and helps those extremists, because Islam and their religion in fact was hijacked and used as a big huge base, where it was implanted this violence using that huge base of people. But in none of religion, violence is something that any religion asks or any religion made, because extremists are extremist, terrorists are terrorists.
ABM: My point is that you are absolutely right. I mean I’m the very first one who would say Islam is a peaceful religion. Islam does not promote violence. What is the perception? There’s an international perception you might say that given that all this violence—I do not subscribe to that, I’m just suggesting to you what the perception is. Given that much of this violence is occurring in Arab countries, between Arab states, between Muslim states, Muslim against Muslim, Muslim against Europeans. So the perception is that it’s very easy to associate now Islam with violence, because the majority of these incidents, this violence, is taking place within Muslim communities and between Muslim and outside communities. So what I thought was missing all along is that whereas you can actually produce a counter-narrative to deal with what the Islamists like ISIS are preaching, this is necessary and needs to be done. And I guess the Kosovo government is doing that. But I hear very little in terms of religious scholars, Imams, who actually talk about the issue outside ISIS, what ISIS is doing or not doing. But to separate Islam from violence, that is, to explain that, to change the perception, there is a need. In my view this is what is plaguing and what is further entrenching the belief that Islam is a violent religion is that no one, very few at least to say, other than denying, saying no, Islam is not violent. But there is no concerted major public relations campaign to explain where Islam in fact stands on the various issues, outside what ISIS, al-Qaeda, and others are preaching. Where do you see that? Don’t you think this kind of effort is necessary? And if, and who can do that, who is doing that?
TS: I agree totally with that. And I’m happy to tell you that this issue is tackled from the scholars, Islamic scholars, and from the Islam Association of Kosova, from Mufti Tërnava, and I have to mention very respected scholar Xhabir Hamiti and others who are telling this, maybe they are not. And I’m sure they are not doing enough in P.R., in public relations to tell that. But I know that they have a lot of followers, and regularly they preach that what has been done has nothing to do with Islam, and these terrorists are the terrorists, and there are no religion between terrorist. But since we are talking about Kosovo, I have to say that Kosovo has 90 per cent of Albanian population and what is interesting within the Albanian population is that Albanians have three religions. It is Islam, it’s Orthodox, and Catholic Albanians. And in our history, in our national identity, is that first comes identity, then comes religion. And we consider each other brothers and sisters regardless of the religion that we belong.
ABM: But the majority in Kosovo, relative majority, are Muslims.
TS: It doesn’t change anything. Because for—
ABM: No, I know because I subscribe to what you just saying, but in terms of the reality itself, would you say that. I mean, I believe that Muslims are a majority nevertheless in Kosovo. Isn’t this the case?
TS: It is the case. But I think that in Kosovo and in Albania also, because we are the same population, we must be aware of this very high value that we share and that’s religious harmony that we have in Kosovo.
TS: When we have the graveyards that Muslims and Christians are buried together, that we have church and mosque that are in the same compound, that we go to each other’s celebrations. And I have also to mention that during the war when most of us were expelled out of our houses, myself and my family included, we stayed for 10 days in a Catholic village and all of us, all of people I know that, myself my family and three hundred others were in the same house, in the same Catholic house, and there were no differences, no looking to each other as enemies and other. I’m very proud of this value that my nation shares between each other, and I strongly believe that this is also not only a governmental issue, but this is also the issue of population that will not tolerate any kind of violence between religions, because that does not exist in our history.
ABM: I think it’s great. I would have liked to see Kosovo take the charge, take the lead and say it’s time to begin to have a major, almost like a global campaign to disabuse the millions and hundreds of millions of people, especially in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere, who equate as I said Islam and violence as if they were one and the same. And begin that kind of campaign to explain, no, that is not the case. The fact that there is so much violence within the Muslim world, within the Arab world and from the Muslim who come from these lands, and terrorizing others in the West and elsewhere, this is a perception. I mean, that is in terms of the extent of it. But the truth of the matter is that the two are not one in the same, and they are some kind of a global campaign. I think it’s necessary to begin, and maybe perhaps Kosovo would be the best candidate.
TS: I agree totally. And I want to use this opportunity also to tell you that during the Second World War, Albanians were those in Kosova, in Albania, those who saved thousands of Jews and they were inside the houses, being as a member of houses. And there was not even a single case when Albanian families went and told to Nazis and to others that yes, we have in our family, or yes, we saw, we know that a Jew is there. So I think that this is one more argument telling that between Albanians who are majority, there is no animosity between religions, but it is a respect. Whether they are Orthodox or Catholic or Jews or Muslims, they are all brothers. I have to tell you, if you go to Kosovo also to visit some places, to visit where I live in Gjakova where there are the same families with the same surname, where half a family is Catholic and other half of family is Muslim, they are always together in celebration, in everyday living. They are buried together in a graveyard and other. And I agree totally with you. Kosovo can be used as one bright spot, as the sui generis that can tell its story. Are we good in PR? I don’t think so. I think that we are very bad in PR, and a lot of good developments that happened—
ABM: And this is something you can do, I mean, you know.
TS: Was not shown to the world as it should be.
ABM: That’s great, thank you so much. Is there anything else you would like to let me know?
TS: Yes, of course. I would like also to tell you as we talked earlier that during these recent years, Kosovo achieved 4 percent of GDP, raised its budget more than 20 percent, unemployment went down 9 percent. We raised thirty-four places up in indicators of World Bank for doing business, from IMF, from World Bank, and from many renowned international organizations. There are very good words telling that Kosova is prospering in economic development, and that immediately can be translated to more jobs and to less space for young people to be unhappy or to look toward negative actions or negative issues, rather than to be a valuable part of society.
ABM: Who is the largest donor in terms of financial aid to Kosovo at this point. The Europeans?
TS: The donors are, European Union is the biggest.
ABM: European Union, how about the United States?
TS: USAID did a great incredible job in promoting business, in raising the quality of our products. And I must say that after signing the stabilization association agreement, the consumer market of 400 million consumers in European Union was immediately open and USAID worked immediately after the war up to now to increase the quality of our products, and ninety five percent of raspberries and other berries in our agricultural products are exported to the European Union. That is a clear sign that the quality standards of our producer are met, and I cannot forget to mention that USAID had a crucial role in this.
ABM: Tell me, are you accepting any money from the Gulf states without preconditions?
TS: I am not aware of that.
ABM: I mean, are they not offering any financial aid like Saudis, Qataris, Abu Dhabi?
TS: There was there was some isolated, it was a building of a pediatric hospital where our former president Atifete Jahjaga, through her engagement took 20 million dollars for building the hospital after the war. There were also some medical aids and other, but I’m not aware about more.
ABM: So, generally speaking you’re enjoying good relations, relationship, diplomatic and otherwise, with the Gulf states, with other Arab countries.
TS: We have good relations with every state. We would like to extend our good relation also to Israel, to Russia, to China, to Romania.
ABM: Just one question about Israel, because it’s very interesting to me that— What is the problem, why Israel did not recognize Kosovo to this time, to this day?
TS: I don’t think that there is any of issue. Kosovo was not recognized neither from Israel nor from Palestine. And it’s really odd. In fact, we cherish and we work very heavily to establish very good relations with Israel. But up to now it’s still in waiting phase. We are very near to establish one economic office as a liaison office in Israel, but it’s still an ongoing process. We would very much like and we worked very hard to have diplomatic relations be recognized from Israel and to continue our good relations. We never had any kind of obstacles, any kind of problems.
ABM: No, there shouldn’t have been in fact any, I mean, I would.
TS: And I expect Israel to recognize Kosova.
ABM: I’m going to try to explore that. And see if maybe we can be of help.
TS: Thank you so much.
ABM: Yeah, that’d be great. Well, thank you so much for taking the time. I think it was wonderful hearing you, and I think it was very useful, very important.
TS: I want to thank you for giving us space and telling a little bit about Kosovo’s story. I think that Kosovo is really one bright spot.
ABM: It’s important.
TS: Not only geography but also in culture, in education in mutual relation. And thank you so much for giving us space.
ABM: No, the pleasure is mine.
Alon Ben-Meir: I’m Alon Ben-Meir, welcome to On the Issues. My guest is Kelly Berkell, right?
Kelly Berkell: You got it.
ABM: An attorney and research fellow at the center on terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Most recently, Kelly served as national security fellow at Fordham Law School Center on national security, and is a graduate of NYU School of Law and Barnard College. Thank you so much for taking the time Kelly to be here. So–
KB: Thank you for having me.
ABM: It’s my pleasure. Thank you. So I recently read a paper that you wrote, which is extremely comprehensive, and I really, really enjoyed it, about your take on radicalization, and how the laws of the United States are applied to individuals who are charged with violent extremism. What was your main focus on that aspect, what is it that you wanted actually to convey to someone who wants to listen to this?
KB: I would say the main points that I was hoping to convey through the paper are that there’s a growing focus in the United States and elsewhere on countering violent extremism, and what’s now being called ‘preventing and countering violent extremism.’ And a lot of that focus has been on the prevention area, which of course is critical in having community-wide initiatives that are CVE-relevant. But in addition, I wanted to just bring a focus to the criminal justice area and how we can incorporate some similar principles there in terms of, once somebody is already intersecting with the criminal justice system, whether they’ve come on the radar of law enforcement as a suspect, or through a referral, or whether they’re actually at a post-conviction phase where they have been convicted of an extremist crime. There are a lot of initiatives that can be implemented that are not being implemented on a systematic basis, so although we do have some–
ABM: You mean initiative in terms of prevention.
KB: Yes exactly, prevention in terms of, if this person has not committed any crime, preventing a future crime, and if they have committed a crime, preventing recidivism. And I mean, when we talk about preventing a future crime, of course we have to be very respectful of civil liberties. We’re not the thought police, and we’re talking about voluntary programs for intervention. But it’s more from the framework of making resources available, so that in a number of the instances that we’re familiar with recently, a suspect was on the radar of law enforcement, but because they hadn’t committed a crime, the investigation was closed and that person later went on to commit an attack. So the paper addresses resources that could be available to communities and families and law enforcement in those types of situations, so that the case is not completely dropped or abandoned in all instances, just to give everybody more tools in the tool kit.
ABM: So based on my understanding of this, we’re talking about the prevention that is going to require when a person such as this is leaning perhaps to committing a terrorist attack, but he has not committed it. That is exactly what you just said. So, what sort of surveillance? That is, because this is exactly what is happening. They have not been in my view allocating enough resources to cover this many people. And my understanding is the FBI, for example, has on their list hundreds if not thousands of would-be terrorists, but they haven’t committed any crime. And my understanding from talking to some people from the NYPD, they know, but they cannot apprehend them, because they haven’t committed anything as yet. But they are also saying, we don’t have that much resources to really follow and survey and make sure that this person is not going to commit any crime. So how do we deal with that?
KB: That’s it, that’s exactly right. By the last statistics that the FBI announced, which were last year, there were over a thousand open investigations into homegrown violent extremists. And I believe the majority of those were ISIS-related. And then as you say, I mean there are hundreds in New York alone—
ABM: Yes. Yeah.
KB: Of open investigations. And so surveillance in every one of those cases is not practical. It’s not economical, and not always needed. But to have community-based resources available to help people for counseling and other social services, and also a network that won’t necessarily involve law enforcement if a crime is not imminent, but where professionals will know about their legal duty to warn and will know when a threat is imminent—I think these kinds of resources could really enhance what’s available, so that hopefully we wouldn’t have to see so many cases like Omar Mateen in Orlando, where he had been looked at by the FBI. Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been looked at by the FBI as well. And even the bomber who planted bombs in New York and New Jersey last year had also been looked at. So in all of these cases, who knows if additional resources would have helped, if law enforcement would have made a referral. But it’s possible.
ABM: Yeah, but my understanding is that one thing they’ve been shying away from doing is actually contacting the families of such a would-be terrorist or would-be violent extremist, and concerning our concern about – well, they speak to the family, to the father or the mother. Well, they may or may not alert the son or the daughter about it, but in some cases actually the father—probably you remember the case where the father himself called the authorities and said my son is; do you remember that?
KB: That that was that bomber, the New York and New Jersey bomber, Ahmad Khan Rahami? I believe that’s who you’re–
ABM: That’s right, that’s right, Rahami, yeah. And so here is a good example of what, if the authorities, that is in this case, it was in New York, right?
ABM: Yeah. But they did not contact the family in advance, even though he was under surveillance. So in the cases like this when actually the father volunteered subsequently, before the person committed, then there must be a way by which to reach out to these families as well. So how do you reconcile the concern over not reaching out, because they are afraid that the family, the father and the mother, would let the son being investigated, maybe surveilled after? So that’s one of the predicaments I understand where the police are facing and the FBI is facing.
KB: And that raises another important question too, which is trust between communities and law enforcement, so that if say parents or other friends or family wanted to make a recommendation, they might have somewhere to turn without necessarily thinking that they’re going to get their loved one imprisoned for 20 years for example on a material support conviction. And so right now we have sort of an all-or-nothing situation, where another case like what you’re mentioning was the case of Adam Shafi, whose father in California referred him to law enforcement, brought him to the attention of law enforcement initially, saying that he could be radicalized, he could be falling prey to an extremist group, and subsequently the son was arrested and is basically in a solitary confinement-type of situation now. And the father, the most recent press that I’ve seen on this, the father is saying that he would recommend to parents in his similar situation, don’t go to law enforcement.
ABM: Not to do that. I mean, because this is the problem. That is, when you have something of an incident like this, when the authorities go to the other extreme and incarcerate the individuals when in fact he hasn’t as yet committed any crime—and exactly what you’ve been addressing in part in your paper. Am I right, you did speak about this.
ABM: And then obviously this is preventing others from notifying the authorities. And my son is leaning toward committing acts of terror. So, the problem we are facing now is, what do we do in a situation like this? What is the mechanism? So if they volunteer and they’re afraid that the son is going to be mistreated or unduly punished, this is a problem for the parents. On the other hand, if they don’t, it is entirely possible that he or she will commit this kind of crime, and perhaps the punishment will be even more severe. So the parents here are trying to weigh what to do, albeit there are not too many such cases, not by the thousands, but they do exist. Anyone, take one terrorist activity to cause such a huge damage. So even one of a hundred is going to matter. And what would you do, what would you recommend to authorities to do under these kind of circumstances? I’ve been thinking about it, what shall we do. How shall we address this issue?
KB: It’s an excellent question. And right now I imagine that the federal government in various capacities is grappling with that issue. Earlier there were shared responsibility committees, which was an initiative set up by the FBI as an attempt to deal with this kind of situation, and it was supposed to be a multi-disciplinary, multi resource community-based committee where cases like this could be referred. My understanding is that at least under that name, that initiative is no longer going forward, partly because I think people felt that it was overly securitized and that it had to be more grassroots and more community-based. But something along those lines does seem, something that would be a multi-disciplinary resource, where the exact parameters with government, with law enforcement, would have to be drawn very carefully in terms of—And we have to distinguish between programs that are purely prevention, that are much more community-based and more general, as opposed to programs that are more targeted toward for particular individuals who as you were mentioning to me earlier, will have experienced different factors that will contribute to why they may be heading down a path toward violent extremism or considering that path. So a more targeted approach would deal with the factors relevant to that specific person, like counseling and social work.
But I just want to add in that in addition, I think another related but slightly different issue that comes up in this arena is applying these principles of preventing future violence to cases where there were already has been a conviction. And the principals can come in in terms of sentencing. As of recently, Judge Michael Davis in Minnesota began a new initiative where he had assessments of defendants completed by an expert, Daniel Koehler, and in some cases probation officers I believe, to determine their level of commitment to violent extremism, and use that as a factor in sentencing and determining their sentences, and then also in prison programs that would be along the lines of rehabilitation so that people don’t get further radicalized in prison. And last but not least, after release, post-incarceration programs to reintegrate people into society and productive roles.
ABM: But before even we go to rehabilitation, when the person is in prison or after he or she leaves the prison, what is that? My feeling is that when a parent or the authorities suspects somebody may be planning or have the tendency to join such a group, why not start the process of rehabilitation? What I have been thinking, and when I talk about it, I say, instead of getting this person and putting him in jail like that, that has been done, then now saying we wanted you to know what’s going on. But you put him in jail and they are not telling other parents, don’t do that because that’s going to be the consequence. Why then should the authorities be doing it? This person is as such. The parents are notifying, or even without the notification of the parent, they will get this person and begin the process of rehabilitation rather than incarcerate and put in prison. And now, from my understanding, that is not happening. So they know this person has a tendency and is not going and saying well, we know you haven’t done anything yet. We feel that you have the tendency, perhaps. We’re going to put you in some kind of program and begin that kind of process as a preventive program. When we talk about prevention, this is one area I think where prevention can take place. We can talk about other means of prevention, for example in the school setting, in the mosque setting. What role can the authorities play in order to preempt it? The idea here is that, from my perspective, is it preempting, not waiting, to take these types of action in order to prevent the person from continuing that path. To [unclear], and eventually commit an act of violent extremism.
KB: Right. I think there’s a model where you can look at CVE, and I think you’re touching upon this, where you can break it into separate steps. Looking at where based on where that person is in their process. So there is, the first step would be purely prevention, when you’re not dealing with anybody who’s necessarily expressed any interest in violent extremism. It’s just purely a resource to maybe counter, offer positive counter narratives. It’s just building community resilience. Then you can come to a place which is I think where you are focusing now, which is generally referred to as intervention or targeted interventions, where the person has shown some interest, possibly some movement in that direction, but has not committed a crime and therefore hasn’t done anything illegal, cannot be arrested, cannot be compelled to participate in a program. And then third, you would come to the charging context, where someone is suspected of a crime but you could still implement some of these initiatives, perhaps as part of a plea agreement or something like that. Which really brings you to the last steps, which are rehabilitation and reintegration, where someone has been convicted of a crime and now you’re giving post-conviction resources that will. But in my opinion, all of it is prevention because even when it’s post-conviction, you’re preventing future crimes, preventing future violence, and promoting public safety. In terms of what resources, what can be done at the intervention stage, I think you know that’s— We need to look at different programs that have existed and we need to look at evidence, and build programs that are supported by the research that exists, and preferably build upon community-based programs that actually exist already. There are many great programs that are in communities that deal with other kinds of violence, maybe gang prevention violence, and we can look at models like those, and build our programs from there. But the key will be devoting the resources to be able to do that.
ABM: Yeah, recently I had an opportunity to speak to three educators who came from Kosovo in this program in the State Department. And my discussion with them was education. That is, what a teacher, an educator in fact can do in the classroom setting when they notice that one of the students, or more than one, or two, are fidgety, are disruptive, are leaning to – there are signs that they are rebellious. And what it is that they can do within the classroom setting, without necessarily notifying the authorities that we have somebody like this, we need to take care of it. So from how I saw it, here are a set of things that an educator can do in order to mitigate, in order to deal with this kind of problem, with this type of individual. Have you been looking into this as well?
KB: It’s something I actually would like to look into, but I haven’t spent a lot of time looking into it. I think it raises interesting questions in terms of youth and privacy rights and so forth. And obviously there are other protections that come into play when you’re dealing with minors, but it is a very important question, I think an excellent question, and something that is part of this whole area that we do need to look at.
ABM: Yeah, because from my understanding—again, I have been looking into researching this, it’s not being done in any methodical, systematic way in schools, where some school is necessary in various areas. You know, in United States, in Europe and elsewhere that is, some time in poor countries like Kosovo, this is a problem of resources, because the teacher can do so much but the person does truly need for example some outside service, like should be seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist, and get that individual engaged in some other activities that require again, some more funding. So when you have poor communities where they cannot afford that kind of treatment to prevent this individual from pursuing the path of extremists, this is becoming a problem. And here, I don’t think countries like this, they are able to. And this is the reason in fact why in Kosovo there are so many, relatively speaking – the number of those young extremists is extremely high relative to other Muslim or Arab countries, because of the problem of poverty in that state.
But one of the measures in my view is that if we want to prevent violent extremists from actually committing, we have to look beyond what we have here, because where the root cause is perhaps is someplace else. It could be in Kosovo, or could be any other country in the Middle East. And we need to think in terms of out of the box, what it is we can do to channel some kind of funding where it’s needed in order to conduct that kind of preventive activities in order to make sure that such an individual perhaps is stopped before he or she commits that kind of crime. And I don’t see that happening. That is the focus. We were in Europe, for example, and I talked to many people there. And I haven’t heard one person who saying, yeah actually we are supporting this type of school in this country or that country because we feel there’s these kind of activities going on. What do you do about these kinds of things, you know?
KB: So are you mentioning that in terms of schools, or generally in terms of community resources?
ABM: Well in schools is one of the community resources. You can talk about, you can go to the imam in the mosque and find out who do they feel is leaning, and do something about it. There’s a role for the imam to play, there’s a role for the educator to play, there’s a role—there’s all kinds of people who come in contact with such an individual, and they can play without necessarily involving the police, the authorities.
KB: Right. Well.
ABM: Yeah. Go ahead, yeah.
KB: I think Europe does have some interesting models, in Denmark and elsewhere. And there’s a new center in Montreal as well. And I do think we need to spend time. There are also, in a lot of Muslim majority countries there have been programs for disengagement and intervention. And fortunately in the United States, we haven’t had as much of a problem with homegrown violent extremism and we haven’t had to historically have as much of an effort devoted to these kinds of programs, but as you said earlier, we know it’s been a growing problem. There are upwards of a thousand investigations. And even though ISIS has lost and is losing territory and isn’t recruiting as many foreign fighters, their online efforts don’t appear to have slowed down and so this is a continuing problem, and will be a problem also as convicted extremists are released from prison. We’ve had about a hundred fifteen ISIS cases by the last count. A majority of those have resulted in convictions, some were not resolved yet. But the average sentence as of about a year ago was measured at nine point two years. But of course we know that some people’s sentences are two years, and some people—one person in Minnesota, Abdullahi Yusuf, was sentenced to time served. So people are coming out and they need resources. Yusuf fortunately is benefiting from new resources that are being developed.
ABM: But they are also not as rehabilitated as they could have been. I mean, that’s what I think is also happening, that they are released from prison but then by and large left to their own devices. That’s what I understand the situation is. But you mentioned ISIS, yes it’s true that they are recruiting less, especially online in terms of their advocacy. But I as see it, even though they will be eventually defeated—I think they will be defeated in Syria as well as in Iraq, it’s a question of when as a body, as an entity, they will be defeated. But what they have done in the interim, they have established cells just about everywhere – in the Middle East, in Europe, and many of these cells right now are dormant, they have not been active. And they can become more active on their own. They don’t need to have an order coming from some authority from the top people, echelon of ISIS. They will begin to act on their own. So what they have done is losing ground in Iraq and Syria. But they’re shifting their emphasis on spreading, because the ideology itself is alive and not going to die with their destruction in Syria or Iraq. So here, the question is, what again the authorities I’ve been questioning and find, what are we doing for example to try to detect these sleeping cells that exist in so many different countries now? And it’s a question of time when there was just commit an act without even much planning. Let us assume for example the guy who just ran over so many people in London. Well, ISIS claimed responsibility, and we’re not really sure whether in fact he was necessarily affiliated or not affiliated with ISIS, but they’re claiming the responsibility. So here you have someone who may not have any connection with anyone else, who may not have cooperated with anyone else, but he acted on his own because he was indoctrinated in one form or another. And I think this phenomenon is going to grow rather than diminish.
KB: I think that’s exactly right. I think what you’re talking about is the phenomenon of homegrown violent extremists, where social media has changed the dynamics and technology. And people are—You don’t need to be a member of an extremist group per se, but people are inspired and motivated online and can credit their actions to a group, or claim inspiration by a group and sometimes even groups that may hate each other. Sometimes people are inspired by multiple groups that in their own locations are not getting along with each other. But nonetheless, somebody in the U.S. or in Europe may be drawing inspiration from those groups, and may use that as a basis for their criminal activity.
ABM: Yeah. So let me just go back to your paper, because it’s so impressive. I want you to just take the, how we are applying the laws and what some of the corrective measures are in how we’re applying the laws against these individuals, be that before or after they committed the act of terror, or violent act. What would you recommend differently, that the authorities take a different kind of approach beyond what is being done today from a legal perspective.
KB: I think that Judge Michael Davis in Minnesota, in U.S. federal district court, has been a pioneer in this. He has developed a program on his own with support from the U.S. attorney who recently resigned upon President Trump’s request, but in any event Judge Davis has designed a new program that addresses the question that you’re asking, or begins to address it. But what I would say is that instead of having each federal court on its own to design these kind of programs, it’s very important to have guidance that the courts can follow based on evidence and based on best practices so that they don’t each have to forge their own path. So Judge Davis did have radicalization assessments to assist him with sentencing, to give him additional information.
ABM: But is there any effort going on right now to coordinate between the various courts, various judges, there’s so many of them around.
KB: It’s a very good question. I know of efforts in various districts that are occurring where people are advocating in different districts for efforts to occur. And there are cases that are currently pending, where these kinds of efforts seem particularly relevant. I’m not aware at the judicial level of an effort to coordinate, whether— I imagine that the Bureau of Prisons and other judicial and legislative policy makers are all looking at this. And certainly we know that the CVE task force was established under President Obama as well as the Office of Community Partnerships to try to coordinate these types of initiatives, not limited to the judicial system, but generally speaking. And it will be very interesting to see what happens with that under the new administration, and part of that will be, there was a ten million dollar grant opportunity funded for CVE, and that money was awarded to 31 community organizations. But it’s unclear how that will proceed, how it will go forward. And following the, there was a Reuters exclusive article that came out in February indicating that the administration was considering changing the name of the Countering Violent Extremism initiative to Countering Islamic Extremism or Countering Violent Islamic Extremism and—
ABM: Which administration, Trump?
KB: Under Trump. Yes, under President Trump.
ABM: Yeah, well there was an outcry about that. Many Muslim countries and the Turks in particular were saying that is absolutely unacceptable, specifically when [unclear] used that, Islamic extremism, and he was saying well, that is not limited to Islam, there are extremists of all manners and kinds coming from all over.
KB: Well at this point now, four of the organizations that were awarded grant money, that applied for and competed for these funds, have now declined the funds and said no thank you, in part because of the concern that it would be difficult for them to work with their communities and have the trust of their communities, when they’re receiving funding under a philosophy and a policy that seems to single out Islam and not encompass other forms of radical extremism as well.
ABM: But then the problem is, I ask myself the question, OK, why is it 95 percent or even more, perhaps more than 95 percent of acts of terrorism, extremism, are coming from originated or from individuals, at least whose background is Muslim, they’re Muslims. So there’s the perception that a natural association of any act of terror is coming from somebody who is a Muslim, who has a Muslim background. In fact, every single act of terror took place in the United States committed by an individual who was actually a Muslim. Recently, there’s several of them.
KB: Well, I mean I think there’s been a—
ABM: I’m not trying to label them as such. I’m just saying the perception is being created is as such.
KB: I see.
ABM: Yeah, the perception is because I do not support the notion that extremism is only coming from the Muslim world, I’m not saying that, not in the least. But the perception is since the majority of these activities are committed by Muslims. So the perception is, like the Israelis look at the Palestinians and think he’s a terrorist, and the Palestinians look at the Israelis and say, he’s a soldier with a gun. That’s how they see each other. That’s how they perceive each other. Same thing when happens and how do we perceive, we connect Muslims to extremism. But from a historical perspective, this is what I’ve been thinking and been writing about recently, from a historical perspective you can create that linkage. That is, why is it they are as such. Again, I’m not saying this is exclusively, because there were so many different kinds of terrorists over so many years. How do we disabuse the individuals, the many, the majority who feel this is the source and this is what we have to deal? Just exactly what President Trump has articulated recently.
KB: Well, you ask so many good questions. That is the question, how do we do that. But you know it’s not, it may be that public perception, or some portion of the public perception. Of course that’s not supported. There’s new America data that shows that since September 11, I believe the latest numbers are, around ninety five deaths from what they refer to as jihadist extremism in the U.S., and about 51 from far-right wing extremism. And I think they cited about five from far-left. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, so I’m sorry if those aren’t exact. But that’s close to the recent numbers. And of course only this week we had an incident in New York City where somebody, there was a hate crime which could later be classified as terrorism – I don’t think we know enough information yet – but somebody came to New York to kill a black man, and that’s what he did.
ABM: Yeah, this guy, this white supremacist who went to this church is it, where he killed five black people, just recently. This young fellow, just maybe a month ago. Well, maybe he was 19 or 20 years old.
KB: You don’t mean Dylann Roof in South Carolina?
ABM: Probably, because I don’t remember the name. Yeah, yeah he did. But you’re right. I mean, but people don’t look at the statistics.
KB: So there have been these high profile incidents. But the one group who doesn’t, I don’t think, who at least as of a recent survey from some scholars at Duke—they surveyed law enforcement and found that law enforcement, local law enforcement officers around the country, were very concerned about white supremacists and about sovereign citizens and some of the what’s considered the far-right wing extremist movements. And at that time at least, they were more concerned about that than about any kind of jihadist or threat of Islamism in their community. So it’s interesting to look at that, because they’re the people day-to-day on the streets dealing. So there are a whole range of threats, and in some ways we need different approaches, but in some ways I think we can learn from approaches in dealing with different threats and use that information to benefit a more holistic effort.
ABM: Yeah, but you notice that in the United States, there’s more of that, white supremacist. And you don’t see the same phenomenon interestingly enough in Britain or France, or some European countries. There, these acts are by and large being committed by Muslims, which is an interesting phenomenon. We have here not as many, but it’s interesting that we do have a different kind of phenomena that has been manifesting itself with white supremacists who are committing these kinds of acts of terror. Where are you going to find as many of a similar nature in the European community? Why do you think that’s the case?
KB: Well, we do have a different threat landscape here. But interestingly in Europe, some of the initiatives to counter violent extremism now that are looking at jihadist extremism have come out of the efforts, the exit programs that deal with white supremacists and other issues. So there is a history of that of course in Europe and in Germany and in Scandinavia as well, and in fact Daniel Koehler, who is working on the Minnesota ISIS cases and has been consulted for different cases in the U.S. for jihadist-inspired terrorism has, I believe, he worked earlier in Germany in exit programs that really focused on white supremacists. But in terms of the specific cultural reasons as to why one form of extremism may thrive in one location versus another, it’s an excellent sociological question.
ABM: Yeah, I mean this is just an observation I made. Because I’ve been seeing this and wondering why is it. And obviously I think your take on it is absolutely the right. That is, we have a different culture here, has a different [unclear]. Well anyway, you know this was really wonderful. I really, really appreciate you taking the time.
KB: Thank you so much, I enjoyed being here. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, Alon.
ABM: Yeah, thank you, thank you again. I think what you have covered is very important. Most people just do not know the intricacies of how we here in the United States have been dealing with this phenomenon. So thanks again, Kelly.
KB: Thank you, my pleasure.
Alon Ben-Meir: I’m Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the Organization of American States. Originally from the Philippines, he entered into the diplomatic service in 1990, and has served in Bulgaria, Albania, and Haiti. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.
Again, I really want to thank you for taking the time.
Bernardito Auza: Thank you Professor also for waiting. The last time there was a little bit of confusion in my calendar on the date.
ABM: No problem. I’m happy always to wait for something good to happen. I feel fortunate to be able to sit down and talk about this very important issue in terms of how Islam is being used as a tool by which to radicalize. And what might be missing in my view is the lack of the effective counter-narrative, using the same religious precepts to counter effectively the propaganda that Islamist extremists use in order to promote their cause. What’s your take on this? What needs to be done, what can we do?
BA: There has been lots of discussion on that. There have been lots of open debates at the level of the Security Council also on how to counter the terrorist narrative using religion or God to perpetrate violent acts. And to further that, we might say really violent ideologies and extremisms. There are certain suggestions like, you could hear so many countries, Muslim countries and Christian countries and countries which you might say do not identify one or the other, that insistence on the social and economic side of the question. As you said, it really doesn’t target directly what you are asking in the sense that there are religious counter narratives that we could use to fight these extremist narratives using religion or religious passages as justifications. That is, I think it’s a certain angulation of the same question, of the same problem, but there is always a tendency to try to avoid that. For people who do think they are not competent to talk about how religion itself or the same religious precepts are being used by violent extremists, to be used to make a counter-narrative against their propaganda. So there is always the tendency of the international community, whether it’s the Security Council or the General Assembly or anywhere, to emphasize the need to fight the root causes of these fundamentalist terror groups. I think there is no question that that’s useful, but it really doesn’t directly answer your question.
ABM: But there’s no question. I mean I agree with you, and I agree with the general consensus. We’ve got to deal with the root causes. That is, it is not mutually exclusive. That is, having a counter-narrative has its own place. But dealing effectively with the root causes is absolutely critical. That is, you cannot have it one way or the other. They both need to be employed.
BA: You are right, they are all to be employed. But the question of, for Christians especially, and thinkers and even religious leaders in the West, there is always hesitation to lead on the kind of a religious campaign or education to make this counter-narrative. There is always that impression that it should be the Islamic religious leaders who should do that. We will support them, we will be there with you. We will have a dialogue with you, but it should be you leading the charge when it comes to countering these narratives.
ABM: Well, there’s no—
BA: I think it’s certainly respectful. I think it’s the right way. Personally, I believe that’s true, how much to each. For instance the Holy See, the Vatican, had just last February a dialogue, a discussion between Al-Azhar [University; school of Sunni thought] and the Vatican, the Holy See, on this question of how to fight this propaganda of religious extremism. So there are initiatives, as an answer to your very direct questions, and we will see how much fruit and whether or really the concrete effects of that.
ABM: Right, right. You know, based on what I see and hear in our research, you are absolutely right to suggest the counter-narrative has to come from the Muslim community – in the imams, in the mosque, in schools. This is the one, because their voices will have more credibility than somebody coming from the West trying to really preach the gospel.
BA: To have a kind of a culture, a counter-productive culture.
ABM: Yeah. The question is, you are a Catholic, I am a Jew, or someone else is a Muslim. We are believers. The three [monotheistic] religions, there is so much in common, a great deal in common. I mean, after all Islam is derived from—
BA: Common father in Abraham. So it’s—
ABM: Judeo-Christian teachings, that’s where Islam came from. 98 percent of the Qur’an is based on the Old and the New Testament. So there’s a great deal of commonality there, which as I see it—To what extent, from your perspective, do we need to have for example a discussion say between Jewish religious leaders, Christian leaders, and Muslim leaders – to sit down together and talk about these issues in terms of, yes, there is absolutely a need for Muslims to talk to Muslims, to disabuse them of the notion that Islam is a violent religion. Islam is not a violent religion. To disabuse them of the notion that Muhammad preached violence, because Muhammad did not preach violence. But you can see in the Qur’an many phrases where the Muslims like ISIS, like al-Qaeda, select pieces; selectively they take a piece of a paragraph or even a sentence and use it in order to promote their agenda. And we know that’s happening, and we also know like you said, that I don’t think there is a major concerted effort by the Muslim religious communities, be that in the Middle East and even in the West, who are actually taking this very seriously and are providing the counter narrative we are talking about. This is absolutely critical.
BA: So what do you think is the reason for that? Is there a fear that they would be targeted by these people who have these extremist interpretations or selective—
ABM: I think there are several reasons. I think one is certainly concern and fear of what happened. So their sermons, their preaching in the mosque, is becoming far more, more or less benign. They’re talking about right and wrong, but they usually don’t touch in a serious way, the question of violent extremism and how religion is being abused in that respect. There’s efforts by the Western community, like in Europe in particular, asking, demanding in a way from the imams in mosques to preach against violent extremism. So there is that concern.
The other thing, I think the reason that many of the Muslim scholars do not necessarily buy into the argument that you need to use religion in order to dissuade or disabuse somebody from certain beliefs is that they are Taqfiris, they are infidels, they don’t belong to us. We do not want to debase the language to the religion.
BA: It’s a very common line. It’s actually a very often repeated line in all the official statements of Islamic countries at the United Nations, that this violence has nothing to do with Islam.
BA: So it is not really like washing your hands. But it’s correct, it is a very logical declaration, statement, that in fact or indeed, what these fundamentalist terrorists and radicals are actually preaching is not Islam. But how are we going to counter that narrative remains. I mean, the question of how are you going to counter their narrative, I think for you it is not enough just to say that they don’t represent Islam, that the Islam they’re preaching is not the true Islam, is not authentic Islam. And exactly, you know Malala Yousafzai was at the United Nations the other day. She was appointed the messenger of peace at the United Nations. She is the youngest messenger of peace of 19. And in her acceptance speech, she said exactly that. She said I am a proud Muslim, proud Muslim woman in spite of what those radicals did to her. And she said exactly the same thing. Those terrorists who claim to be Muslims, they are not Muslims.
BA: They don’t practice Islam.
ABM: They distance themselves from them, precisely because they do not want to equate violent extremism with Islam. However, the point they are missing really, given that these Islamic groups use religion to make their case, that does not exempt those who make the claim that these are not Muslims, and Islam has nothing to do with that. They cannot make that claim anymore because the other side is using Islam as a religion, as a means by which to recruit, to indoctrinate, and to commit horrifying acts in the name of God, in the name of Allah. That is the problem with that, kind of the missing link there, that is inability.
BA: So what further steps should it take? I mean how much— Oh yes certainly, I mean even if you preach at the mosque, you say these radicals claim to be using Islam as the motivation of their acts that are violent acts. I think the preachers, the imams at the mosque, they would say, this is not Islam. So it’s a kind of just transferring the same declaration, the same statement from the U.N. to the mosque. Even if that, they may say, would that make a difference?
ABM: Well here my feeling is that there is a very strong need for Western countries—the United States, West European countries—to collaborate very closely with the Arab world, with the Muslim world, on this particular issue. That is, neither the Arab world can resolve that problem by themselves, nor the western community can resolve the problem of radicalization within their Muslim community on their own. There is a need it for because when you talk initially about the root causes, this is absolutely true. There is a problem in West European, Muslim communities in terms of lack of integration. It is happening, but the real root causes actually have been and still are in the Middle East itself, in the Muslim countries. Poverty plays a role with it, lack of education, discrimination, segregation, the use of arbitrary – lack of law and order, so to speak.
So you have all this chaotic situation whereby it is breeding, is alarming, nurturing the root of extremism. So the young men and women who are living in this country with no hope, no future, no prospect for a better life, they become more open to invitations coming from extremist groups that say you’re welcome. You see, if you come with us you will belong to a community, you will have things to do, you’ll have a goal, you’ll have identity. So they are embracing them and using the religious language in order to get them to join, and in order to prevent them from questioning the actual mission subsequently. That’s [unclear]. If, say we want to begin that kind of process, we are going to need to see to what extent the West – let’s take the Vatican in this particular case. To what extent the West, the Vatican, or others, say Jewish, religious leaders. To what extent can they actually work together and to try to promote this agenda that Muslims themselves sometimes are claiming, that they are not Muslims and we have nothing to do with them. And once they feel if they engage them—
BA: Instead of leaving them alone.
ABM: Yeah, leave them alone. If they engage them, it is as if we are admitting to some guilt. That we are actually beginning to accept the fact that they are Muslim and we are Muslim. So this is a problem that is affecting us as just the same.
BA: Actually, certainly dialogues not only between Catholics and Muslims, or not only between Jews and Catholics, have been going on for a long time. As you remember in the 19–s, I think it was, we celebrated the 20th anniversary recently of the first meeting of all the religious leaders in Assisi, and then Pope Francis recently also went there to commemorate the 20th anniversary. So actually there are many initiatives. Probably we don’t see them always.
In the Philippines I know for a fact a number of Catholic priests have been murdered because of their insistence on—there is an association or group, it’s really [unclear] it’s not a dialogue, it’s an association, a space for dialogue. It’s called Silsilah. It was founded by Catholic priests and then by Muslim leaders. And there are the fundamentalists, the extremists who kidnapped and killed some of the priests and also some of the Muslims. So in spite of all these setbacks we might say, this group has continued to grow and has continued to have more. These are really grassroots movements that could hardly be seen from afar. But there are actually many movements like that happening on the ground. These movements, it’s not only religious leaders. Most of the members of this Silsilah group are ordinary people – laypeople, women, men, children. So they come together and not only discuss but above all pray, pray in their own way as a community. But you know pray how their religion, the way the religious teachings pray. And so it’s very effective, but at the same time it has to be accompanied by other means, by other measures. I mean the government, the states, the authorities have a fundamental role to play here. This may be probably, if you think of the Middle East, this is also one of the problems there, the big problems. I mean, how could states, authorities kind of counter these movements within their own states? For instance, how could these states promote, let’s say for instance the fundamental principles of a pluralistic society? How could these states educate their citizens to, for instance, the principle of citizenship, that everyone is equal before the law, no matter what religion they have or what race they belong to. These fundamental principles of living in a pluralistic society are very much lacking. I mean the Arab Spring was so, especially in the West, we all probably sang the praises of liberty, of freedom, but without understanding that these were just eruptions of freedom, yes. But are the elements there to make this freedom really be the real expression of freedom? I mean, in these societies where this society is waiting for a pluralistic society.
ABM: No, no, there’s no question. They are not ready.
BA: That’s a problem, that’s where the violence is disrupting or bringing down [unclear] dictatorial regimes in a society which is completely unprepared to practice and to observe fundamental rules and principles in a pluralistic society. Certainly it’s for, I think were the results. I don’t think it is a privileged way just to bring down the regime. And then it is chaos.
ABM: Yeah, but the point you’re raising, an important point is, can in fact a pluralistic society coexist and complement religious precepts, religious concepts? For example, let’s take Turkey today. Turkey is a good example of a country that was on the path of democracy, and Erdogan was able to sort of combine, wanted to create a model of Islamic democracy. Well things are now of course unraveling in Turkey, and Turkey is moving more and more toward becoming more and more Islamist. So there was a question from the very beginning, can the two coexist or reconcile between the two? Can you in fact have a pluralistic society if religion is a dominant political factor in many of these countries? So, but I want to—
BA: That is a question. I mean, how many of these states would promote that? These states believe in the possibility of a harmonious pluralistic society. While Sharia would be, what I say, a fundamental element of interpretation of the law.
ABM: This is precisely the point. Take Saudi Arabia for example. Under what conditions will they relinquish any kind of religious control, in order to replace it with some democratic form or whatever that may be? So there is an inherent contradiction, inconsistency between the two. And the Saudis never try to reconcile between the two because this is the way it is. This is where we stand. But countries who presumably wanted to go through this experimentation like Turkey, now we see, it’s not working there at all because things have dramatically changed.
But let’s go back. That is, if this is the reality, which it is reality, how are we going to really deal with root causes, much of which exist in the Arab world, where Islam is still dominant? And if you try to distance Islam from the activities of Islamic extremism, where are we going to be a year or ten, five years? We are not, I don’t see progress that is going somewhere, somewhere that’s going to have to be bridged. Somewhere along the line, the Muslim countries ought to recognize that the religion is being used and abused, and they can no longer distance themselves from it and say, Islam is not violent and we have nothing to do with it. How do you go about changing the dynamics of this kind of narrative?
BA: I really think that the role of the state here is fundamental and essential. Because if the state believes in the fundamental principles of a pluralistic democratic society, then certainly the state has not only the right but the duty to—
ABM: But they don’t believe in that, however.
BA: I mean, that’s the problem.
ABM: That’s the problem.
BA: I’m supposing, I mean that’s the fundamental role of the state here, could only be played, could only be performed, done by a state with authorities who believe in these fundamental principles. If the state is not willing or does not believe in these principles, then it’s not to their interest to work for that. I think it’s simple.
ABM: So there is room. However, given this reality in the region, among most Muslim countries, is there room for religious, like we said earlier, scholars from various faiths? Let’s talk about in particular Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Is there a role for the leadership of the three [monotheistic] religions to do something? You mentioned this interfaith conference, and there was a great deal of discussion about it, but you also indicated, rightfully so, what was the follow up? What happened after the conference? To what extent the consensus was ta—
BA: Yeah, the dissemination of what was learned, of what was agreed.
ABM: What was agreed on, the consensus, how that was translated into action on the ground, in order to promote interfaith and as a religion, but also promote the role of each religion and what it’s playing. So to what extent do you think this is going to be necessary in the future to continue, not just with a kind of convocation like this?
BA: Yeah, with the formal level of leaders, but also really in the communities, which is more decisive.
ABM: How do we go about it?
BA: You know, I think the answer to your question presupposes really a number of analyses of how different religions are in their structures and their doctrines. Not only in their doctrines, but in the structures. For us, I mean for the Catholic Church, we set some parameters, a hierarchical structure with institutions all over the place, on the ground, connected to the top. I mean what the Pope says, we do. Well I think that could be, as far as I know, really a very distinguishing characteristic in the Catholic Church, that even other Christian churches could have that kind of pyramidal structure in which you might say the Supreme Authority says, then the others follow. And then, it’s not only what he says, but he has the structure to bring it down to the ground, to bring it down to the last village, to the last chapel, to the last parish, to the last faith community. You see that for instance in the Islamic world. I mean all the Al-Azhar is recognized as the most authoritative of all. At least in the Sunni world, this is the highest religious authority. But does it have, in the Muslim religion, do they have a kind, do they have that structure and that belief that what Al-Azhar accepts, says or teaches, should go down to the very last, to the last post or to the last madrassa, that they would listen to Al-Azhar? I mean, [unclear], is I don’t think, I mean I’m not really talking about Islam, I’m talking about also other religions.
ABM: No, no, you you’re right. I mean to what extent that kind of teaching—
ABM: Influence, other. If I may ask you almost like a personal question, you are an archbishop, you’re a believer, which is admirable. But do you also believe in democratic forms of government? Do you?
BA: Yeah, sure.
ABM: Obviously you do, but you don’t see a contradiction between being a deep believer and also being a man who also believes in freedom and democracy. And you’ve been able to reconcile that in your mind. So how do you reconcile that in your mind? Because like you just said, what the Holy Father says, we do. You don’t ask questions. On the other hand, you also believe I’m a free man. Am I right?
ABM: I can say what I want to say, so somewhere along the line you’ve been able to reconcile between your deep beliefs and a political system that speaks for freedom and rights and laws and order.
BA: Yeah, I always think that is fundamental in our teaching, in our training. I’m sure you’ve heard probably of this very important document of the Second Vatican Council is the, we call it the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. Its title is Gaudium et spes. Of course the first three words of the document are in Latin as traditionally documents are titled. And in there, it is very clear that the church and the state are autonomous.
BA: We are independent of the whole sphere, and yet there is such a huge we might say area in between that they share, and it is precisely because the citizen is also the believer. So when I say ultimately both are working or promoting the good of the same person, how are we going to reconcile the two? We might see being a religion and being a state having the same subject. Of course in the mature, democratic—when I say a system that is progressively being cleared out, sometimes it goes back, sometimes it regresses. Look at the United States. I mean, why did the founding fathers—the founding fathers, they were practically fundamentalist Christians in a sense. They were not tolerant of the Catholics, they were not tolerant of other Christians. And they were the descendants of the pilgrims, et cetera, et cetera, because of religious persecutions. They came to the United States also. And yet, in spite of the fact that they didn’t necessarily love the other Christians, didn’t necessarily love the other people of other religions, they made it the point. I mean the [First] Amendment. Why would the [First] Amendment be possible? Because I think that in spite of the fact that I don’t love you, we respect your religious freedom. So it is already a principle that has been courageously really put into writing, into the Constitution, by the original thinkers of the system. And these are fundamental rights, the fundamental decisive points in the history of the evolvement of the democratic system in the country.
Could that be possible when the country is in the Middle East? Could they say, I don’t like you. I could even hate you, I mean, it’s not your problem. And yet I respect your fundamental freedom of religion, I respect that even Muslims could change their own religion or they could say that I don’t believe anymore. I mean to be an atheist, or now as they are called [unclear] all over the place. I mean this fundamental principle, it has become the backbone of generally harmonious relationship between a state and a religion, church, and between democratic principles and religious principles. So there is not only the possibility we have. For example, there could be tensions, there are regressions. As I’ve said, during the Obama administration, there was a huge question of religious freedom. There was the Hobby Lobby case and there is a case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and many other Catholic institutions who were forced to do something against their conscience, against their religious principles. And they won practically all the cases. We won because the courts determined that these are violations of your religious freedom. So the state could very well function without forcing the Poor Sisters to distribute abortifacients, for instance. I mean, why would sisters taking care of old people ever be forced by a country where euthanasia is legal, for instance. How can you force the Poor Sisters to kind of administer euthanasia to their guests in a home to care for the old people? So these are principles, I’m sure. I mean, I am not a scholar. I’m not even an expert, but looking at it really from the vast perspective, from that perspective, I’m sure there are many scholars in the Middle East, many Islamic scholars and many other scholars who are friends of the Islamic scholars, know very well this fact, this system. Otherwise they wouldn’t be scholars if they don’t know this. And they think that they will be convinced that this could work also for them.
ABM: They know it, they understand it, but to what extent in fact they are active in promoting what they themselves believe in? I mean, there’s an element of certain freedom in Arab states, specifically in religious matters, specifically when it came to Christians and Jews. Mohammad himself excluded these two from being subject to forced conversion.
BA: That’s what they call the Declaration of Medina.
ABM: Yeah, the declaration. So they did allow freedom for Jews to worship what they want, and the Christians to do that. So there was that level of religious tolerance. It is changing a little because of the last decade and a half or so of what’s happening in Iraq, what’s happening in Syria, it is changing.
BA: I guess many of the— I’m sorry, I want to comment on that, I think especially the declaration, I mean the Medina Decree or really the decrees you might say of Mohammed, certainly preceded the Qur’an. That’s also a problem – I mean, Islamic scholars willing to use the Medina Decrees of Mohammad to interpret the Qur’an, which came after. This is also another aspect of the religious problem, because there is so much hermeneutic, there is so much, what’s it called, the historical analysis of text that should still go on. Of course I think every religion – the Catholic Church, Christianity in general for that matter, experienced this huge progress in terms of interpreting other biblical texts. I’m sure the Jewish scholars have been doing the same. And also the Muslim scholars, there are some Muslim scholars, some of them certainly were persecuted. There are Pakistani scholars who have tried and really explored the side of using the historical interpretation of sacred texts. So I think this, for example, how could you use the Medina decrees, which preceded the Qur’an, in interpreting the Qur’anic texts, or the hadith, etc. So it is something I guess that is going on, and one hopes that there will be really—I think I’m excited to see in the near future how this, what Christianity went through in the 19th century for instance or early 20th century in terms of the interpretation, hermeneutics of the sacred texts. That’s why exegesis is such a demanding science. To get a doctorate you need to know the ancient languages, you need to know ancient history. You need eight years to get a doctorate, all these things. And then it’s only just a start. You are not even yet a scholar, even if you’re already a doctor. You keep on studying. So I’m excited to see it. In the Islamic world it would have schools of thoughts in interpreting sacred texts using various tools in which other religions have undergone.
ABM: I just want to conclude by one question, and we’ll talk about them. That is, we know that conflicts, be that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the conflict in Syria, obviously promote extremism, all kinds. And we recently had a discussion at Villanova University about this issue, and I raised the question, the extent to which for example the Catholic Church can play a role in mitigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because that conflict feeds into extremism just like any other conflict in the Middle East, when you have this kind of problem that has not been solved for 70 years. Do you feel that the Catholic Church has a role to play in mitigating these kinds of conflicts which are, at least in part, root causes behind extremism?
BA: Well, I think there will always be a role, but if you look at it, there are so many influences within the Israeli-Palestinians, the Jews there are of course various currents of how they should approach a problem. I will mention that in the Holy See statement next week at the Security Council. But you know, look at Hamas. I mean, how much do you think the Catholic Church or whatever religion could influence them, when we know that there are concurrent influences. But I’m not saying that we should give up. I have in mind several examples of how we have been. There is a Catholic priest who is milk guy in Galilee. He has a school where all the Jews and Christians and Muslims are welcome. And the school really encourages dialogue.
ABM: I just want to—
BA: But it’s only a kind of a small initiative in this sense. If we could multiply; there is another one in Jericho now.
BA: And then the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem will be here next month, and we’ll see what he can do. And the people mostly in Syria will be here also next month. So we have probably—
ABM: One final thing I want to say. Do you think for example, if the Holy Father were to invite religious Israeli Palestinian religious leaders, Arabs, Israelis, to come and have that kind of dialogue, do you think that can be useful?
BA: The Holy Father has done that a number of times, yeah.
ABM: No, actually inviting them for this specific purpose.
BA: And then I think there’s been a series of encounters, meetings, and that already. And of course he could continue. I am sure he will continue, not even only inviting religious leaders from all the Palestinians and the Jews, but also the political leaders. As you remember, when Abbas and Shimon Peres came to the Vatican and, et cetera, I do believe that – I don’t have really a list of all these meetings going on in the Middle East, and in particular in what we call the Holy Land. That is, whether it’s the Israeli territories or whether it’s the Palestinian territories, but indeed as far as I know, there are dialogues in different levels, different sizes, different actors you might say, their dialogues and the [unclear], there are dialogues conducted at the level of communities.
ABM: The only thing is, I know, I agree with you. They are happening, but something like when the highest authority.
BA: The threshold is not yet reached in which they could really influence.
ABM: That’s the whole point, I mean we have the highest authority actually more visibly has given far more cover. This is what role the Christian church can play. Anyway, I think I think we all need to do a little bit more.
BA: That’s for sure. Pray more, work more, be friendlier, be more compassionate.
ABM: That’s right. And care, and love. Yeah, and that is what it’s all about. And I wish the Islamic extremists just learn one simple lesson. That there is a better way to achieve their objective without killing and maiming and destroying. Well anyway—
BA: Pray for that, that’s what the Holy Father prayed last, Palm Sunday, after the bombing in Egypt happened, when the pope was celebrating Palm Sunday also in the Vatican celebration and said, let’s pray for the conversions of the violent. This is really true. I mean there are, as they said solutions to the problems. The big problem should be pursued in different levels—the level of states, the level of national authorities, the level of the international community, at the level of local communities and authorities, and at the level really of individual lives.
ABM: I agree. I agree 100 percent.
BA: It is so much there.
ABM: Thank you so much.
BA: Thank you, Professor.
ABM: Thank you for taking the time, I really appreciate it. It’s wonderful to be here.
BA: Thank you for coming.
My guest today is Emre Celik, President of the Rumi Forum. His work focuses on intercultural dialogue issues related to pluralism, social harmony, and peace building. Celik is originally from Australia, where he was involved in numerous interfaith and education projects in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne. He has a degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in teaching.
Below is a full transcript for this episode (lightly edited for clarity).
ABM: I’m Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Emre Celik, president of the Rumi Forum. His work focuses on intercultural dialogue issues related to pluralism, social harmony, and peace building. Celik is originally from Australia, where he was involved in numerous interfaith and education projects in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne. He has a degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in teaching. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode. And thank you so much Emre for being here, especially now in D.C.
EC: Thank you, yes, thank you to be here. Nice, cool day.
ABM: Yeah. Yesterday was a summer day.
EC: Yes. In less than twelve hours we went from warm to very, very cool.
ABM: Yeah. You know we just had a meeting, you were there.
ABM: Talking about Turkey. David Phillips made a presentation about Erdogan and Erdogan’s attention. What do you make out of this, Erdogan’s effort now to basically legally become a dictator by changing, amending the constitution and pushing Turkey ever so steadily toward Islamization?
EC: Yes, we’ve been on that rocky road for depending on where you take as a reference point for the last few years, particularly since the corruption probe, the increased persecution of people affiliated with the Gülen movement, and then thereafter the coup. We have 130,000 people that have been suspended, and that’s just in bureaucracy, not including private enterprise. 90,000 people detained, 46,000 people imprisoned. And many of them are without a court date or access to their files. They don’t know why, other than the fact they’re somehow affiliated on this–
ABM: Now, in which way.
EC: And, this paints a broader picture of course where Erdogan unfortunately is taking Turkey. So he’s going to have legal precedents to be a formalized dictator, unfortunately.
ABM: Yeah. But you know, we’re talking—you mentioned earlier the Fetullah Gülen movement.
ABM: And knowing that the two, Gülen himself and Erdogan, were very close friends at one point.
EC: No, I would argue that they weren’t friends. I think there was a convergence–
ABM: Of interest.
EC: Around, yeah, around values. I think even though obviously many movement participants and Gülen himself can now look back and say this was a mistake to trust Erdogan and those affiliated with him, but many people–did you know many people in the EU, in the Obama administration, around the world, looked to Turkey as a model. It was known as a Turkish model because of these values. So just as–
ABM: Are you talking about the values?
EC: Yeah, the values of EU accession – constitutional reform, judicial reform – these are the issues that were on the table. It is around these issues that movement participants, particularly those in the movement-affiliated newspapers, and Gülen himself, said positive things. But similarly many people, many democrats around the world said the same thing. So the minute the AKP and really Erdogan took a u-turn, this is when there was a falling out between the movement’s media and the AKP, but specifically Erdogan.
ABM: But you see, when I have been looking at it, I didn’t see a specific point of departure in terms of the AK Party, pretty much. And the Gülen movement has supported by and large the same principles.
EC: Up until they veered away.
ABM: Yeah, up to a point.
EC: I think the movement held on to those principles. And as a result of those principles, we see that they’re being persecuted today.
ABM: OK. Why the rupture?
EC: They’ve taken the higher moral ground, and this is particularly important because we have a lot of other Muslim-inspired movements in Turkey that aren’t suffering. Why? Because they have bent over backwards to accept and accommodate Erdogan. Gülen, based on principle, didn’t succumb to Erdogan’s anti-democratic stance. The movement, institutions in particular, the public voice of the movement through its media vis-a-vis Zaman, which was Turkey’s number one newspaper, was the only newspaper selling that had a circulation of more than one million. Just three days ago it was its first anniversary, March 9, when Zaman went down in 2016.
ABM: Yeah, but the point is when Erdogan was pursuing aggressively political and social reforms, and certainly he focused a great deal on the economy. And he has managed to build a very powerful constituencies, specifically those who benefited from his economic development. So.
EC: But you’ve got other groups, you’ve got secular liberals, Kurds, many of them supported Erdogan.
ABM: This is true. So–
EC: So you have a broad base of support. So we can’t single out the Hizmet movement or Gülen as–
ABM: But why is it that he was against the Hizmet movement? What is it, what are the principal objections? Where did the cleavage come from? Where did the discord come from?
EC: I think the historical difference is the difference between how they view Islam in the public sphere and how Gülen views Islam. I think Gülen’s understanding, and I think the message that’s been brought home quite well in the Western media, is that there is a struggle between democracy and autocracy. The subplot I suggest was missed out to some degree in that the struggle really in Turkey is civil Islam versus political Islam. This is the ideological difference and the worldview by which Erdogan sees a top-down approach where the state has a role in religion, and Gülen sees it as a personal issue that religion remains in the personal and civic space. And for that reason, it was convenient both for the movement and the AKP as well as other actors–be them liberal, Kurdish, or otherwise–coming around to these values that the AKP initially sought to uphold. Again, judicial reform, giving rights to various minorities and communities, including Kurds.
ABM: But there’s no discord on this issue between the two sides. And the Gülen movement was also focused a great deal on building hundreds, thousands of schools, promoting Islam. So he was not exactly focusing solely on secular teaching, but he also promoted– I was myself several times in many of these schools in Ankara, in Istanbul, and elsewhere. So he pushed Islamic education in a very aggressive manner.
EC: No, the schools do not promote Islam. The schools in all the countries in which they exist, and remember, the movement is active in more than 160 countries. The schools follow the state curriculum. The state curriculum, this is important.
ABM: But there was emphasis on Islam as a subject, a great deal of emphasis.
EC: In Turkey, despite the fact that Turkey is a secular state, it has a subject known as Religion and Culture. Religion and Culture, I wanted to get the name right.
EC: So this is a state sanctioned subject. For example, I’m from Australia. The schools don’t have a religious subject, because it’s not part of the state curriculum.
ABM: Exactly. Now Erdogan is–
EC: So if the school, and remember, these subjects existed pre-Erdogan. These subjects have existed under the Kemalist state. So some would argue that they instilled both. Remember that Turkey, despite the fact that it’s a secular state, has a Religious Affairs Directorate. Some people argue, and this existence was founded under the Kemalist state. They argue that this was formed so that religion could be controlled. And for similar reasons, that the state curriculum has a religious subject so that it can be used as a means to control religion both in the classroom and in the wider community through mosques. Remember, to be an imam or a preacher, and this includes Gülen, you’re a state bureaucrat. You can’t be an independent imam in Turkey. You’d have to be licensed with the Religious Affairs Directorate. So this is an issue that’s existed in the AKP period, but it’s also existed pre-AKP.
ABM: But when you–
EC: So the fact is that the movement-affiliated schools are similar to state schools. They teach religion and culture because it’s sanctioned by the state.
ABM: OK. But when I visit these schools–
EC: What Erdogan has done, he’s increased these types of subjects, he’s brought in—
EC: Quranic classes, other classes, and is enforcing these with people of non-religious background, people of non-Turkish background, people of non-Muslim background. This is something that we should all argue against, that people shouldn’t be forced to learn or have religion if you will rammed down their throats. So this is problematic. And this is what Erdogan’s introduced.
ABM: I understand. Let me just focus one second on the question of teaching religion in classrooms. From what I see, what Erdogan has been doing today, in the last five, six, seven years, eight years, he’s been forcing, introducing in high school and in the universities more and more courses teaching Islam.
ABM: This is very pervasive now throughout Turkey. The Gülen movement has also been promoting building these schools. And there was some emphasis, greater emphasis on Islamic studies in these schools than other subjects. I’m not suggesting other subjects–
EC: I don’t know of anything like that. I’ve been to these schools, I even did an internship in my early years when I visited Turkey, I taught English in those schools. Whatever the state requirement was, that was. These schools are well known for two things: science and technology. The students of these schools have brought home gold, silver, and bronze medallions in the various science Olympiads. These include international Olympiads. Chemistry, physics, maths, and information technology.
AMB: I know.
EC: So they produce the best students, which is why this movement has successful students that have ended up in successful universities, be it in Turkey, here in the United States, or elsewhere. So the emphasis of the schools in many of those 160 countries is science and technology, not religion. The only place, and I need to emphasize this, the only place that religion is ever taught is if it’s state sanctioned. Turkey’s one example I know of. I think Egypt’s another. I know of Indonesia as well.
ABM: OK, well let’s just focus on these schools in Turkey.
ABM: In Egypt, in Indonesia, where the Gülen movement have built many of these schools. And based on what I see, there was an emphasis on religious studies. I’m not suggesting other subjects were excluded, certainly science and technology was very strong.
EC: Well, I need the counterargument. I’ve visited these schools, I’ve worked in these schools, ok.
ABM: And they were also—
EC: I’m a participant of this movement. I’ve been involved for 25 years. I know Gülen at one level, personally. He has never encouraged this. He encourages at the personal level, you can read his books.
ABM: But what was then, what was—
EC: You can listen to his sermons and his preaching. But there is no avenue for religious studies to be taught in these schools, other than what is sanctioned by the state. So that’s important. What is emphasized, and this is my counterargument to what you’re saying, that religious studies or Islamic Studies is emphasized, no. I would argue, and that’s what I’ve seen. And this is what the competitions that the schools have won internationally – they emphasize science, physics, chemistry, maths, and IT. So I would be interested in your sources that suggest this.
ABM: Well, I’ve seen myself for example, I went to these schools – first of all it’s predominantly boys, OK. I have not seen a single girl student in these schools. And I asked the principals, the teachers, why? Well, they gave me all kinds of explanations, we don’t put it—
EC: But there are single sex schools. I’ve been to Jewish and Catholic schools that are single sex in Australia, so.
ABM: No, no, but as far as the Gülen movement schools are concerned.
EC: And there are mixed schools as well, which is what I spoke about today.
ABM: Well I haven’t seen it, but the vast majority of these schools were for boys by and large. Not all of them, but there were a vast majority. That’s what I know. And I also know from the teachers themselves, they were telling me– I want to get to the point, my point here is that when they were telling me yes, religious studies, whether consistent with the requirement of the state, I grant you that, but go back to the requirement of the state. Remember, from the time the Turkish Republic was created in 1923, there were several prime ministers who attempted an Islamic coup, basically trying to introduce Islamic studies and make Turkey more and more leaning toward conservative Islam. I mean, this is not the first time. So what I’m saying is—
EC: Which coup are you talking about?
ABM: Well there were at least two or three, two coups we had. Was it Arbadan? What was his first name? And the one who–
EC: There was no, it’s that all the coups up–
ABM: Well, there were two coups at least where the military intervened precisely because they were shifting or emphasizing.
EC: They were shifting in the Baltics, yes.
ABM: They were shifting into Islamic studies.
EC: But there was a soft coup of ’98, against Erbakan.
ABM: Erbakan, yes.
EC: But all the others were at the hands of Kemalist soldiers divided between the left and the right.
ABM: Yeah, but the religious component was very strong in these two coups. One of the prime ministers [Adnan Menderes], I’m sure you know, was actually executed subsequently because of that, because if he was very strong in introducing Islam. My point here is that Islam as such, in Turkey yes, Kemal Ataturk wanted a separation of powers so to speak. He wanted to create a secular state, a more westernized state. That is the case. But throughout this, almost 90 years now, throughout this process there was always a consistent effort by various governments to promote Islam, and in a consistent way. And I did not see a single government, going back 30, 40, 50 years, that did not want to have anything to do with Islam. Basically, they wanted to present the so-called Islamic democracy. That’s what Erdogan’s flag was – we have an Islamic democracy – when in fact he was moving very steadily and very consistently to make the country ever more Islamist. We know this to be the fact. Now my point is this: the Gülen movement, the religion Islam is not strange to the Gülen movement. They were also emphasizing the importance of religion. OK I’ll take your point.
EC: He’s a preacher, so I think we need to look at it not necessarily within institutions but in his private capacity as a preacher. So the institutions we need to separate from Gülen’s role as a preacher. He’s a preacher. He preaches Islam.
ABM: But this is exactly my point.
EC: So this is significant, so he preaches Islam. That’s his role. You believe this is an important part.
ABM: But there was no, yeah.
EC: Learning civil Islam from the pulpit, which is what he encouraged through the 70s and 80s.
ABM: And, ok.
EC: And, to this day in his public discussions on social media and what have you.
ABM: This is exactly the point. He does that, he preaches that.
ABM: And for him.
EC: But we need to separate him–
ABM: Well, but the separation.
EC: From the institutions. That’s significant. That’s significant.
ABM: Well you call it significant.
EC: Because these institutions exist in many countries that are predominantly Muslim, to predominantly Buddhist, to predominantly Hindu, to predominantly Christian. So these schools exist in these countries and do not emphasize religious studies or even within that, Islamic studies. So you may have one example or you may have some examples in the Muslim world, but you can’t point to examples and say that this is generalization that the movement is involved in. You can’t.
ABM: But you cannot suggest also that Islamic studies were not part and parcel of the curriculum.
EC: Only because, and I’ve mentioned this before, only because it’s part of the state curriculum.
ABM: And there also–
EC: So, whether it was a Hizmet movement-affiliated school or anybody else, including Kemalists, had to learn religious studies as sanctioned by the state.
ABM: And the fact.
EC: So I think that’s significant.
ABM: No, I think, I understand it.
EC: That’s important, that people listening to this need to realize that the movement is not about spreading Islam or spreading some type of ideology around religion. It is about serving communities, encouraging science and technology, and allowing communities, particularly those in the third world and poorer countries, to be empowered through knowledge to be successful.
ABM: But you can.
EC: To come back, and to serve the community.
ABM: But you would say then if this was the case.
ABM: Why would Erdogan object to all of this? This is exactly the point, that is, if there was no strong Islamic component.
EC: And this is the difference between civil Islam and political Islam, is that civil Islam exists in the civic space and in the personal spaces.
ABM: This is true.
EC: And there’s a lovely article I would refer you to read by Dr. [unclear], that differentiates the understanding of Islam in the modern era, civil versus political.
ABM: Now I grant you that, whereas Erdogan is moving more and more to a political Islam, no question, and there is perhaps less so.
EC: And this explains why the movement has been successful in 160 countries, except we can exclude Turkey now. And that’s got nothing to do with the movement itself. It’s to do with the persecution of the autocratic tendencies of Erdogan.
ABM: But in which way then are the schools that belong to the Gülen movement different than ordinary schools elsewhere, anywhere in the world? What was different, why, if—
EC: Emphasis on science and technology, number one. Number two, mentoring programs that incorporated not only the students, but the families and the wider community, and as a spinoff of that, encouraging service. So these are three of the main values: science and technology education; mentoring programs that incorporated the wider community, so not just students and families but everyone; and then the importance of civic and social activism, getting students involved. I’ll give you one example. We visited a school, I went back home to visit my family in December 2016 a few months ago, and I visited the school, I have friends there. I was a teacher at one of the schools in Sydney, which is where I’m from. And they had a garden, a large garden, maybe four, five times the size of this room. And students from K to 12, Kindergarten, played a role. A) It was a mechanism to learn about gardening, about biology and ecology, about the environment, that we realize where food and fruits come from. And they would raise the fruits and the vegetables out of this garden. They would fund it themselves, the produce they would produce, they would sell at a farmers market because they farmed this organically. And the funds that they made would help continue to run the farm, and the profits they would send to an orphanage in Africa. So all the students, big or small, contributed to the running of this vegetable garden. They make money from it. The profits went to an orphanage in Africa. So there’s many lessons. There’s science lessons, there’s social responsibility lessons, and there’s civic and social service to others that need it, helping that. So this is just one example.
ABM: No, I understand that of this, and I understand that they are involved in a very direct, effective way in all of these subjects and some, there’s no question. That does not still explain the fact that the Gülen movement and Erdogan finally split. What was the basis for that split? This is simply personal? It’s not, it can’t be personal.
EC: No, I think it’s principles around the fact that A) Gülen, and B) Hizmet movement institutions—
ABM: In which way these–
EC: Took a principled stance. One of the first signs was the fact that Erdogan came down hard on university prep schools. There were 4,000 of them. These help kids in government or private schools through extracurricular tuition at evenings and on weekends to help them get into university. Of the 4,000, it is alleged about 1,000, a quarter of them, were affiliated with the movement. He got rid of all of them, and many commentators in Turkey said–
ABM: The question is, why? What happened there? Why would he want to get rid–?
EC: I think this was a long term plan because—
ABM: What is the purpose?
EC: –by virtue of the fact that the movement has a strong conservative base. That’s, Gülen—
ABM: But in which way? The point is–
EC: Gülen historically never liked people using religion for the benefit of politics, he quoted often a very important Kurdish scholar.
ABM: But this is exactly what he’s doing now.
EC: Said, [unclear] he said, and this is an important statement. If you don’t mind, let me quote him. He said when religion and politics mix they both lose, but religion loses even more so.
ABM: But you don’t buy into that argument. I mean, this is–
EC: Gülen was very concerned with people using politics as Erbakan previous to Erdogan, and as Erdogan started to increase such rhetoric, using religion for political means.
ABM: But this is exactly what he was preaching against before. This what he was initially saying, we need to separate between politics and Islam.
ABM: But now he is actually pushing political Islam. For Erdogan today, it’s the method, it’s the philosophy by which he is governing today.
ABM: So. I want to go back. What was then the reason for the departure, for the conflict, between the two sides. From a theoretical perspective, the Gülen movement was pushing, all the subjects that you’ve been talking about. You know, science, chemistry, and technology and all of that, and doing social work which is very important. These subjects—
EC: I get Erdogan feeds the fact that Gülen’s principle stands against historical, stands against political Islam, and where Erdogan was taking Turkey, using these methods of politicizing Islam and Islamicizing politics. Sooner or later he felt that the strong base that Gülen had around him would reject Erdogan. So he saw this as an opportunity—
ABM: But why would he—
EC: –to quiet them down, quiet down Gülen and the public voice of the movement, the media institutions–and remember, after the corruption probe I just mentioned a few moments ago, the one number one newspaper that was being critical of Erdogan, Zaman newspaper–
ABM: Zaman, yeah, I know that.
EC: Was brought down. So that– and of course, the corruption probe became a great excuse to come down after. He used this as he gave this the title of civilian coup against the government. He suggested that this was backed by Western powers and that local agents who he inferred was the movement, was behind the corruption probe, move ahead —
ABM: This is, we understand that. I want to go back to the school, because this is an important point. That is, you would assume that Erdogan would not object to any curriculum that deals with sciences, technology, computer science, and all of that. If that was the emphasis of the Gülen schools, there should be absolutely no resistance to that on the part of– Now, there was another component. What is the other component to which Erdogan objected to?
EC: But these schools didn’t encourage the Islamization of knowledge or of politics, and therefore many of the students coming out were sympathetic to this understanding of Islam. Civil Islam, as opposed to using Islam for politics, when this was encouraged in religious schools or other schools that were affiliated or close to Erdogan—
ABM: This is where–
EC: And the various religious movements that were close to Erdogan.
ABM: So let us establish then, because we want to clarify this for people who will listen to this conversation. Now we are dividing civil Islam versus political Islam. Whereas the Gülen movement pursues civil Islam and for the good, all the reasons you just have mentioned. Erdogan basically is using political Islam to further his own political ambitions. And this is more than transparent in the last seven, eight, nine years. The point is this: there’s nothing in the Gülen school system that is inconsistent still with what Erdogan himself– And you are saying that he is afraid, that this teaching civil Islam in these schools is going—
EC: Represented through the participants in the movement, as teachers that are role models, because remember.
ABM: But why would that be contrary to Erdogan’s interest? Why would he—civil Islam and political Islam are not mutually–
EC: Because he never gained Gülen’s endorsement. And Gülen has always been critical of actors that use religion for political gain.
ABM: OK, so now we are getting to a point, so we are reducing it also to a personal conflict, not only ideological. I don’t think because civil—
EC: No, I think these are the values by which we understand Islam in the modern era.
ABM: No, true. But civil Islam, let me just repeat, civil Islam and political Islam are not mutually exclusive. They are not one against the other. Well, I’m not suggesting political Islam is the right route to take, the right path to take, but civil Islam is a positive approach to religion, to a way of life. But how do you in fact take countries where they use Islam as the political foundation of the state? Today, Turkey is not alone. I mean, this is what Erdogan is trying to do. Look at various Arab countries. Political Islam is what governed Saudi Arabia, political Islam is what governed many other states, in the Gulf and others. But in the same token, they’re also introduced to the school curriculum, other subjects. So what they’ve been able to do is basically find a formula where political Islam and civil Islam are not necessarily separated because they see that one could actually complement the other. Well, that is not the case in Turkey itself. That is, Erdogan saw a threat. So, he realized it’s a threat. But the Gülen movement is threatening what he wants to do, what he wants to achieve. So really, what I’m trying to establish with you is, because for me it is more than just the school system. It is not just pursuing political versus civil Islam, it was also an element of personal conflict between the two. It is not because necessarily ideologically they have a disagreement with one another from a political perspective. So what was beyond that? Why was there this competition between the two sides? Why? Why, to a point where now Erdogan is persecuting anyone that belongs to the Hizmet movement?
EC: That of course goes beyond the corruption probe in regards to– I think the movement became the go-to scapegoat. You know, he created, fermented enough hate and fear of the movement of Gülen, and used the pretext of the failed coup of July 2016 to complete. And remember, within hours of the demise of that failed coup, lists were ready, and many commentators in the west–
ABM: Yeah. But, but.
EC: Suggest at least, these lists were ready in advance, and that he used it to–
ABM: This is true, but the conflict.
EC: Start a new wave of purges against the movement.
ABM: But the conflict was started way before the last coup, between the two sides. I mean, we’re going back–
EC: I mean we can go back, we can go to Mavi Marmara for example, where Gülen made statements in the Wall Street Journal in regards to the incident. He suggested that the participants in the blockade, so these public statements of course– And remember, the individuals involved were closely aligned to the then-prime minister. He said, we gave them permission to sail off, and words to that effect. So Gülen’s stance both in terms of, he made two important statements there, that a) the incident was ugly and b) that they should have sought permission with the authorities. So this was not taken lightly by Erdogan and those close to him. So I think that there is a historical context, but I still think it comes to the fact that historically Gülen’s non-Islamist stance was always a threat to those that wanted to curb Turkey in that direction. And that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing the Islamization of politics, and I know we’ve gone over this, and the politicization of Islam, and this is something at the core of what Gülen believes. And the fact that the movement has been successful is the fact that relates to the tradition that Islam is not ingrained in the institutions, whereas Erdogan wants to ingrain these in these types of institutions.
ABM: No, I understand that. But let’s just go back. If this kind of understanding exists, it does not actually justify the major conflict between the two sides today. So when we talk about criticism, you criticize Erdogan about the Marmara event, you criticize Erdogan for various policies that he’s taken that have no relationship to religion; just it’s a political disagreement on specific issues. But I put all of this together, and I still don’t understand myself where this – other than you are suggesting that merely Erdogan was most concerned about how successful the Gülen movement was, and he did not want to allow it to continue to flourish because that is going to undermine his policy and his politics. But where is this going to? Where is this going to lead to? Now, yes. Now he’s in power, he’s persecuting those Turks who presumably belong to the Hizmet movement, to the Gülen movement. But what’s happening now?What is taking place now? Where is this going to go?
EC: Well you know, the movement of course is under a lot of stress in Turkey. The numbers of people as you know that have been purged, all the institutions have been closed down or expropriated. The movement’s become a [unclear] movement. It exists outside of Turkey. Those that are affiliated with the movement and have opportunities to leave have left. Many people are seeking asylum, and this includes others as well that are not affiliated. Turkey has gone down a dark path, and it appears to be getting even darker if Erdogan is granted super presidency. So that’s a difficult call. My biggest concern is beyond Erdogan; the levels of polarity that exist will take possibly decades. I’ve spoken to children of Holocaust survivors. They say that hate continues beyond the leader, because it’s been entrenched through government-backed institutions. And remember, there is no independent media, everything is in the hands of Erdogan. The media of Turkey has become a propaganda machine for Erdogan. So all the polarization against Kurds, against Alawites, and in particular against sympathizers or participants of the Hizmet movement, those that are close to Gülen, are seen as demons. And that has been pumped day in, day out. I quote Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. He said, if you lie to the people often enough, they’ll believe you. And this is what’s been happening for the last three years.
ABM: Oh, more than that. I mean, it’s more than that, of course.
EC: Yes. And in particular, in regards to the persecution of the movement, and the purges that began slowly but were ramped up as a result of the attempted coup, which in fact of course is anti-democratic. Gülen spoke against the coup. He even said if there was anyone affiliated with me, they’ve gone against all the values that I stand for and the movement stands for. We still don’t know, is it eight months on, we still don’t know who’s perpetrating this.
ABM: Do you have a hunch yourself? Do you believe in any conspiracy kind of theory of sort?
EC: I think that’s something that’s plausible, you know, Kemalist soldiers planned this and it was allowed to enact. Erdogan co-opted some of those soldiers, allowed for a small group that knew it was a coup, allowed it to take place in a controlled environment. And soldiers that didn’t know it was a coup thought it was either a terrorist attack, or a war game. And many lower-ranking soldiers that took part were interviewed, saying we were told that was either a terrorist attack, some people reported it as that, or a war game. But we don’t have enough. So they’re not allowing evidence to come out. So no one can really make informed decisions, other than, based on some of the evidence. And remember, David again, you just had a conversation with from Columbia University, suggested the same, that it was a controlled coup that Erdogan took advantage of. And that’s significant.
ABM: It it’s entirely possible, it’s possible. But a military coup in Turkey is not a new phenomenon. It happened before, and nobody suggested then that the military coups were contrived, two, three times before.
EC: But this was done so badly.
ABM: Well this was done–
EC: So badly. Again, I’m quoting David here, and I’ve forgotten his surname, just so people know, who was the Columbia University professor?
ABM: Yeah, David Phillips.
EC: David Phillips.
EC: He said it was controlled and it was it was meant to fail.
ABM: Well, we don’t know.
EC: Of course, and we may never know. And I agree with that, we may never know. This is a plausible scenario.
ABM: Yeah. The fact that–
EC: It’s more plausible than what Erdogan tells us.
ABM: Maybe, but what will support that is the fact that he had this ready-made list of nearly a hundred thousand people that they were able to round up the following two or three days. That suggests that it was something planned, and he may very well have some part in it.
EC: Yeah, he took advantage of it.
ABM: As part of it.
EC: Even if he wasn’t involved at all, he took advantage of it. As he said, it’s a gift from God. Quote-unquote, it’s a gift from God.
ABM: Now I want to just take it from here. The Gülen movement today is on the defensive. The Gülen movement today is on the defensive.
ABM: I just was invited to a meeting in New York City, was it three, four days ago? A group of Gulenists, actually we met. And they wanted to hear what people like myself and others can suggest, how to sustain, how to strengthen the Hizmet movement, because they feel that they are under attack.
ABM: Outside Turkey. Now if they feel attacked outside Turkey, what is happening now? Do you expect, do you anticipate that the Gülen movement at any point in time can come back and restore some of its philosophy, civil, within Turkey itself?
EC: I think that’s a long project. I would like to think so. But not under the current circumstances.
ABM: Do you consider yourself belonging to the Gülen movement?
EC: Of course, I’ve been a participant for 25 years.
ABM: Well that’s great. Now I know why you’re defending it so.
EC: Because I’m a participant of the movement. I’ve given up my creative involvement in these types of activities, I feel very privileged to be. I would assume you knew that.
ABM: No, I knew that, I just wanted to know what’s your take, because anyone who speaks the way you talk about the Gülen movement, you surely belong to the movement or are part of the movement. But being that you are, what do you suggest? What kind of path would you like to chart for the future? Are you going to stay on the defensive? Now, I don’t know how much longer Erdogan will last. Where do you see the future for the movement?
EC: I think continue to be active in the civil space while taking up the responsibility of assisting those that are in trouble.
EC: In each of the respective countries that the movement’s active in. So for me it’s Washington D.C. For others it’s New York, others the U.K., Spain, Australia, elsewhere.
ABM: So why—
EC: Remember, Turkey’s the major issue here. But the movement’s active in 160 other countries. So you know, steady as she goes and continue to serve.
ABM: And are you suggesting that with or without support from Turkey itself, or without, if the movement died in Turkey itself, it has resonance to exist elsewhere?
EC: Yes, the movement isn’t about just serving the Turkish people. It’s about serving all people. There are problems everywhere.
ABM: So, what is the difference between this movement and many scores of other groups and organizations, political, that do the same thing?
EC: That Gülen’s able to frame this within an Islamic understanding, theologically, and say that this is how Muslims around the world and those that are friends of these values – so that includes people of other faiths, and people of no faith – to come together to serve. But the motivation for many Muslims that are observant Muslims, Gülen frames this within a theological understanding. But he also frames it around, for those that aren’t Muslim or those that are secular, he frames it around a social responsibility aspect as well. So there’s two dimensions, that those that are observant have responsibility to the creator and creation, and those that are not observant have responsibilities to their communities, irrespective. And that’s significant.
ABM: It is, fine. But I want to go back and we’re going to conclude with this, right, more or less. Go back to where we started. And that is, the Islamic component of the Gülen movement is very important, that you cannot–
EC: For those that are observant Muslims. There are people that consider themselves part of the movement that aren’t Muslim. Is there anything wrong with that? No.
ABM: Where do you find these people?
EC: We have advisers, for example here in Washington D.C. You go to our website, look at the different ways. We’ve people that are rabbis and pastors that support our activities, that donate their money, that donate their time.
ABM: Support. But do they belong to the movement?
EC: Well, supporting the movement, participating in activities.
ABM: I mean, I can support many organizations. But I don’t belong to the organization.
EC: Well I think there’s a there’s a fine line. I never belonged to the organization, but I was part of the movement as a volunteer while I worked as an engineer, previous to my position.
ABM: I’m not being critical of what the movement is doing.
EC: No, I’m not suggesting you are.
ABM: And to me, what I’m saying. Do you feel that the movement has a future? And to what extent this actually can take place if there is no future for the movement in Turkey itself?
EC: I, I—
ABM: What will happen say after Fethullah Gülen dies, what would happen after that?
EC: I think it’s giving a creative opportunity for the movement participants to look at new avenues to grow within countries where they weren’t as strong as a result. And remember, a lot of people have been pushed out of Turkey. So this gives them the catalyst to be more active with the new people, to look for new opportunities, and to–
ABM: And are you suggesting it will last if Gülen is no longer there, if he’s no longer alive?
EC: I mean, I think that’s one possibility.
ABM: But, how do you see the future without him? Do you feel that his presence, his importance as such, the leader of the moment spiritually, practically, politically, and otherwise?
EC: Well not practically, he doesn’t control the activities in 160 countries, but the values he espouses.
ABM: Do you feel, suppose he departed the scene tomorrow. Do you have some–
EC: Well, he will eventually have to.
ABM: Well, who’s going to assume the helm of the movement and continue with the [unclear]?
EC: We don’t have him at the helm of the movement per se anyway. The institutions run independent of him. He doesn’t know what’s happening in Fiji or New Zealand or Nepal.
ABM: This is true.
EC: Or Norway. Of course there’ll be maybe a morale loss for a certain period. But I think he’s inculcated in the participants our dynamism and opportu–
ABM: But do you really feel that this can continue?
EC: Motivation to look for opportunities, and to find people that need the services that are necessary.
ABM: Without leadership?
EC: There’s local leadership everywhere. I’m at the head of the Rumi Forum, I have a team, I work with them, I don’t consult Gülen. I’ve been here eight years.
ABM: I mean historically speaking.
EC: He doesn’t know what the Rumi Forum does.
ABM: Well he doesn’t have to know the details. But historically speaking.
ABM: Any movement, any government, you’re going to have some leader–a leader to be emulated, a leader to be followed. If you do not have Gülen today, alive, and you don’t have somebody who can actually take his place and become the leader, are you suggesting that it can exist by simply perpetuating and promoting what each chapter is doing in various countries?
EC: I think that’s a big question. I don’t know. The movement can continue. There may be a demise, I mean that that’s a possibility. We don’t know. It’s a matter of crossing that bridge when we get to it.
ABM: But why wait?
EC: The circumstances.
ABM: But why wait? If this is–
EC: But we don’t know the circumstances that the movement will be in.
ABM: I mean.
EC: We don’t know the circumstances the world will be in, we don’t know the circumstances of Turkey, which has been a strong hub for the movement.
ABM: But this is all more so because of that. I would think that he himself would think in those terms. Well I am 70, 80, I don’t know how old he is at this point. About 80 years old?
EC: Coming to 80 years.
ABM: 80 years old. He knows there’s a time where he’s not going to be around. Shouldn’t you think that he himself would think in terms of how should we perpetuate, how we should continue to promote this idea?
EC: I think he’s laid out the plan by virtue of the values, by encouraging people to be involved, to be selfless and sacrificial, etc. These are in his books, in his preachings, and he has 80 books to his name. So whether he continues–
ABM: Do you really believe that any movement can survive unless you have significant leadership at the helm?
EC: I mean, we’ll find out. I’m not necessarily suggesting that the movement will grow or–
ABM: But my question to you, why do you want to wait to find out? I mean, we know you’re going to need some kind of leadership. If I were Gülen myself, Fethullah Gülen myself, I would say I’m 80 years old. I’m 85 years old, and I have to think in terms, if I want this movement to continue to grow, to be stronger, I’m going to have to find somebody who’s going to lead it. But I don’t see that’s happening.
EC: But the concept here is that you’re suggesting that he actually leads the movement. No, he doesn’t.
ABM: Well who does?
EC: He doesn’t. The movement in 160 countries is independent of one another. It’s a loose network of organizations that generally adhere to the principles that he’s espoused for 40 years. He doesn’t come in and tell me what I do at the Rumi Forum, or what other people do.
ABM: Of course not, I know that. But he–
EC: And beyond his life, we’ll see. I think it’s a matter of seeing when we get to that juncture, because the conditions of the world that will be the conditions of the individuals, and the status of the individuals.
ABM: My feeling is that if you leave this, since you don’t know what you’re going to be, obviously then you don’t know what’s going to be the future of the movement. So you cannot say I don’t know what’s going to happen in Turkey, I don’t know.
EC: Just as the coup was unpredictable and its effect on the movement, I think it’s unpredictable. I would hope that it continues to grow in strength, to look for new opportunities, to serve people in various areas.
ABM: The reason I’m raising this question is because if the movement basically is being decimated in Turkey itself and the head of the movement, Fethullah Gülen himself, departs the scene, passes away, then the future of the movement in my view will be in serious jeopardy. You do not have any longer the base where the movement was created in the first place, and you don’t have the leadership. And that is eventually where people like Erdogan will win the day. That’s how I see it. I see the movement needs to reconsider its position today. Where do we want to be 10, 15, 20 years down the line? Yes, a lot of things can change around the world, in Turkey itself, elsewhere. But we should have a vision.
When I talked to this group just last week, I asked them this very question. The whole movement, the Hizmet, Fethullah Gülen is the heart, the center, the soul, and the spirit of the movement today still. That’s why they look up to him. And I’m suggesting to him, you are under tremendous stress. They’re looking for ways and means by which to help perpetuate the movement in New York. And I raise this question. How do you see the future? Where is it going? And there’s no answer. There’s no answer. They’re saying, it depends. Do you really think a movement can continue, because it depends on what else is developing, unless you have some kind of strategy that can consider all kinds of developments.
EC: I think the virtue of the fact that there’s maybe more important issues at hand today than to be thinking about what’s going to happen with the demise or the passing away of Gülen. We have a new class of refugees, the movement has moved into a position of assisting these people that are trying to get out. The world’s a different place to what it was 3, 4 years ago. And I’m not just talking about Turkey, or autocratic tendencies here or in Europe. So these are new issues that have been brought on the table.
ABM: But it’s no longer–
EC: Not only for the movement but for all people, for all communities, for all civil society actors.
ABM: But it is no longer exclusive to the movement. That’s the whole point.
EC: So yes.
ABM: It’s no longer exclusive to the movement. Which means, this movement will become just like any other movement that deals with this humanitarian issues.
EC: I mean, that’s a possibility, I tell you. I’m not arguing against the fact that you know.
ABM: I mean, that’s what I really wanted to.
EC: You know, I’m not arguing against the fact that I think it’s unpredictable. I can’t guarantee the movement will exist in 15, 20 years. I don’t know.
ABM: That’s my point. My point is those who believe in it, those who want to have it, to see it last, in my view are not taking the kind of steps necessary to promote it. Because if you now agree with me that the movement is what it’s doing in terms of humanitarian aid–be that refugees, teaching, schooling, work, all of that–it is no longer exclusive to the Gülen movement. And that’s when a movement disappears, when it is not longer, if you don’t have the spiritual leader for it, and you don’t have a specific philosophy that is different than the other philosophies in terms of human needs, human dimension. Then the Gülen movement as such will not be able to survive. That’s how I see it.
EC: Watch this space. Let’s live and learn.
ABM: Okay. Thank you so much, I really appreciate you taking the time.
EC: You’re most welcome. It was a pleasure.
ABM: The pleasure is mine. I hope you don’t mind, we sort of– I wanted to argue with you.
EC: Not at all, I was testing you and you did okay. I’m willing to do this again.
ABM: Anytime, anytime. I’ll be better prepared next time.
EC: I hope. I hope so. I see potential, I see potential.
My guest today is Dr. Sahar Khamis, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. Dr. Khamis is an expert on Arab and Muslim media and the former head of the Mass Communications and Information Sciences Department at Qatar University. She’s a former Mellon Islamic Studies Initiative visiting professor at the University of Chicago.
She is the co-author of the books: Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses in Cyberspace (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and Egyptian Revolution 2.0: Political Blogging, Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Additionally, she authored and co-authored numerous book chapters, journal articles and conference papers, regionally and internationally, in both English and Arabic. She is the recipient of a number of prestigious academic and professional awards, as well as a member of the editorial boards of several journals in the field of communication, in general, and the field of Arab and Muslim media, in particular.
Dr. Khamis is a media commentator and analyst, a public speaker, a human rights commissioner in the Human Rights Commission in Montgomery County, Maryland, and a radio host, who presents a monthly radio show on “U.S. Arab Radio” (the first Arab-American radio station broadcasting in the U.S. and Canada).
A full transcript is below (lightly edited for clarity)
Alon Ben-Meir: I’m Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Sahar Mohammed Khamis, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. Dr. Khamis is an expert on Arab and Muslim media and the former head of the Mass Communications and Information Sciences Department at Qatar University. She’s a former Mellon Islamic Studies Initiative visiting professor at the University of Chicago. You can find her full bio on the page for this episode. So thank you so much, Sahar, for taking the time to sit with me.
Sahar Khamis: Thank you, Alon.
ABM: And I really appreciate it.
SMK: Thank you so much for the opportunity, Alon.
ABM: It’s my pleasure, believe me. Anyway, so I’ve been doing this, talking to important people, scholars like yourself, in order to explore various conflicts, conditions, situations, especially in the Middle East. And one of the things that I have been engaging and working on, and I wrote scores of articles on, is the Arab spring. And there’s a lot of misunderstanding I think about what the Arab Spring was all about. Where does it stand today? Has it evaporated, has it become a cruel winter, or is it still reverberating someplace, and that the Arab world will, no matter what happens, one form or another every Arab country will experience some form of quote-unquote Arab Spring because the Arab youth, have risen. They are now awakened, and they are no longer willing to accept what used to be a generation or two ago. They want something more, they want something different. They want hope, they want opportunities, they want jobs. And this will be I think something that we would like to share with our listeners, especially coming from you, having been experiencing that first hand. And we can take it from there. Maybe perhaps we can start with what happened in Egypt, being that you are from Egypt, and what you see that went right, or went wrong as far as the revolution in Egypt is concerned.
SMK: Let me start first with the Arab Spring itself, and then we can zoom in more closely on the Egyptian case in particular. But when I start to talk about the Arab Spring in my Arab media course at the University of Maryland, I tell my students, which term do you prefer? Arab Spring, Arab Awakening, Arab Uprisings. And we start to talk about these different terms, and what the rhetorical meaning of these terms really is. Because when you say for example awakening, as much as it’s a beautiful word, I just say wait a minute, I don’t want you to get the false impression that the three hundred fifty million plus Arabs were asleep, and then all of a sudden in 2011 they just woke up, because that is not a correct depiction or accurate depiction of the situation.
ABM: You’re right. The awakening, however, as I see it, is awakening to new realities. They have been living their life, they’ve been aware of what’s going on, but they have awakened to a new reality. They want more. They’ve been exposed specifically because of the technological revolution which you are very familiar with, is communication.
ABM: They now have the means by which to see how other societies live.
ABM: And hence, in that sense I call it awakening, having come to realize that there is something else better there and we deserve to have the same experience.
SMK: Right. But what I’m trying to get at here, it’s not like it has been a complete, total lack of political will and participation and desire for change. Because there have been attempts well before the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring. Arab youth, Arab people have been sometimes going out to the street, and protesting, and talking and trying to change realities on the ground. It’s just that you can get 100, 200, 300 people out there in front of one of the syndicates, or out there in the street, and it would be easy for the police forces to simply round them up and arrest them and put them in jail. What happened in 2011 that was different was what I call the catalyzing effect of social media and new media, providing a platform for self-expression and for expressing the will of the people, and also acting as catalysts that speed up the process of mobilization on the street and acting as amplifiers that can make the voices of protest louder, and providing some kind of link or bridge between what is happening online and what is happening offline, between the virtual world and between the real world. So I always say that this kind of missing link was the reason for what we had before, which is called the safety valve paradox. The safety valve paradox means the governments will leave a small room for expression of opposition voices or voices of dissent or rebellion or disagreement, as a way for people to vent some of their anger. And therefore, just like the safety valve in the pots that you cook the food in, it is just the way to prevent this pot from reaching the point where it actually explodes. So that’s what they call the safety valve paradox.
So in 2011 there’s no more safety valve. Now you have the full explosion of the pot, or we can use a different analogy, we can say the genie came out of the bottle or the genie came out of the jar, and now it’s very hard for any government to try to put the genie back again, which is why really answering your question about whether the Arab Spring has evaporated or whether it has gone away is difficult. I say listen, we don’t want to go to either extreme, the extreme of painting a very rosy, euphoric picture like the one many people, including myself to be very honest. Back in 2011, six years ago, we were so euphoric, so optimistic, it’s awesome, the genie is out of the bottle, that’s it. Six years later, we have to revisit what went wrong. What were some of the gaps? What were some of the things we did not maybe pay attention to, or give sufficient attention to? But we should not also go to the other undesirable extreme of being totally pessimistic and painting a very dark picture as if it’s all doom and gloom, and everything went wrong, and there’s no hope. We want to be in the middle ground of cautionary optimism. You want to be optimistic, but you want to be cautious. You want to assess.
ABM: Let me interject here something. It is not a question of what we want. It is a question of reading it correctly. That is, we have aspirations. We would like to see that the Egyptian revolution succeeds. We would like to see, but the reality is this. What we are searching for, what actually happened is not what we want to project. We want to project optimism, we want to project pessimism, that is a personal viewpoint. In my thinking, my writing, I try to think in terms of what actually happened – regardless of my wishes, regardless of what I want to see happen. And this is really what motivates me to research and learn and study what actually happened. Yes, I would have liked to see the Egyptian revolution succeed and there would be full-fledged democracy in Egypt. But that’s not going to happen. Not now, and it’s not going to happen any time in the near future the way I see it. Not the way the United States wanted to introduce that political system or the same thing you might say in Iraq or Syria, but we’ll come to that point. But what you are saying, we do not want to paint the picture one way or the other. It is nearly in my view not up to us how we paint the picture. Let’s try to read it the way in fact it evolved.
SMK: You mean the perception of it, because I’ve attended talks and lectures where people are very optimistic, or people really, really paint a very dark picture. But it’s like, wait, just give me a moment here, because we cannot underestimate the amount of bravery and courage and heroism that was exhibited during these days of revolution, including in groups that were traditionally marginalized and left out of the public sphere, including women for example.
SMK: Just the fact that in a country like Yemen, which is one of the most traditional, conservative countries in the Middle East, you see women flooding the streets day in, day out. Not for days, not for weeks, but for months.
SMK: So much so that the president at that time, Ali Abdullah Saleh, takes the microphone and he tries to play on the tribal, conservative nature of society and says, what are these women doing out there in the street? Shame on them, they have no business being there in the street and rubbing shoulders with men and protesting. This is a big shame. They should stay home. He’s trying to play on the social traditional view, cultural view of women and women’s place.
What did the women do in this conservative, traditional society? They flooded every inch of the country, not just the capital Sana’a, and they raised banners, saying it’s not shame on us to ask for our rights. It is shame on you to deny us our rights and to deny us democracy and freedom. So you’re seeing here something very big. Regardless of some of the things that went wrong, and we’ll talk about that, why there have been deviations from the right path, or the journey has not been as smooth as hoped for. But we cannot at the same time undermine the value of this kind of heroism and this kind of exceptional courage that was demonstrated by youth and by women and by many segments of society. That’s why I’m saying we need to have this middle ground.
ABM: No, I agree with you, this is very important, because once they were able to exhibit that courage and that tenacity to go out to the street and demand change, that has created a precedent which it happened once, it can happen again and again and again. Which means as I see it, how the Arab Spring is evolving – notwithstanding the major setbacks that already took place – the fact that the youth now are imbued, and understand I have power. I have power and I can use this power, regardless of the oppression I’m going through, regardless of the political conditions I’m going through. But we have power. And as long as we can work together, galvanize our resources and our forces, we can achieve a change.
SMK: And also remember, Alon, something very important. More than 70 percent of the Arab region are young people under the age of 30 or 35, and that percentage increases in some of the states – for example the Gulf states, including Yemen. Ninety percent are young people, so this is a very young, vibrant population. And we talk about youth in particular, they are the momentum, they’re the impetus of society. They’re technologically savvy, they’re agents of change, you want to see change. I always ask this question – do you know what is the number one country in the world that has the highest number of tweeters, people who use Twitter? When I ask this question in class, people say, the United States, Sweden, Germany, France. No, the surprise is, it’s Saudi Arabia. And my students go like, what? Yes, I know you’re surprised, but it’s really Saudi Arabia. So when you think about that, even in this conservative, traditional society you have young people, a very big percentage of the population are young people, and they’re technologically savvy, and they have the highest number of tweeters in the world. What does that tell us? Five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years from now, I personally think that there’s a momentum for change and there is a momentum for a dynamic evolving in the region.
ABM: There’s no doubt. So what happened now? When I survey what happened since 2011, obviously a number of things went wrong. And my feeling is that one major element, or one major entity that has contributed to some extent to the failure of the Arab Spring in various countries is the West itself, the United States in particular. What the United States attempted to do is that, thinking that the youth are rising now because they want freedom, they want jobs, they want opportunities, and all of that. But I think the order in which they felt they can tackle that is first by using a political system that is really not consistent with the needs of the hour.
SMK: This is something very important, because when for example the U.S. invaded Iraq, it was this notion of, we’re going to bring democracy to Iraq. So I tell my students, this is an analogy that’s related to cooking in the kitchen, but I think it’s very valid here. You cannot buy a ready-made democracy off the shelf. You must cook your own homemade recipe for democracy. Why? Because I cannot go for example now to Osaka in Japan and say, oh look at that. The University of Osaka has a magnificent system of education. I’m going to take it and apply it in Alexandria, Egypt. Well guess what, it’s going to fail.
ABM: It won’t work.
SMK: It won’t work because the system itself, the different cultural, educational, political, social components are different. So if you do not take into account the very specific context of each country and each nation, each region historically, culturally, politically, socially, you are doomed to fail.
ABM: No, it is no question, and you’re absolutely right to suggest that even if you apply this method, you cannot apply the same thing to two different countries, because each country has a different culture—
SMK: Even within the same region.
ABM: Even within the same region. So that’s what compounded the United States’ mistake, by thinking we go we can introduce a democratic form of government when in fact any kind of democracy has to be consistent with the culture, and in this case, religion of the people involved, without which this is going to be a completely alien political system to which they cannot easily adjust and in fact reject for that matter.
SMK: I cannot agree more. And you know at the very beginning of the revolution in Egypt in 2011, there was an interview with some of the youth who were the impetus, the blood of the revolution, and the anchorman or anchorwoman at that time asked them, what do you expect from the United States? And one of the activists, his name is [unclear], he’s one of the bloggers I wrote about in my second book Egyptian Revolution 2.0. He said, we are not wanting the United States to send us any weapons or to send us any money. We just want one thing only. Please don’t support authoritarian or dictatorial regimes period. That’s all. We don’t want you to support Mubarak, we want you to stop supporting him. And that’s all we want. We don’t want weapons or money or supplies or any kind of resources of any kind. And that’s the whole thing.
I mean, people in the West, they really ask the question with goodwill and good heart like, how can we help? People in other parts of the world ask, how can we help in order to advance the cause of democracy? I say, just don’t try to back dictatorial regimes, and try to tell the governments not to back dictatorial regimes. But beyond that point, it has to be up to every country and up to the people of each country to decide which way they want to go and how they want to chart their own future. We cannot just give them a ready package and say, this is the ready package, go and apply it, you’re going to become the USA, or you’re going to become France, you’re going to become Britain. That’s not going to work. It has to be a home-made and home-cooked recipe of democracy.
ABM: This is absolutely true. And this is a very important component. That is, you can provide a democratic form of government consistent with the local culture and religion for that matter, but that in and of itself is still not enough. Look what happened with the elections in Egypt itself. There was you might say free and fair elections. Who was elected? The Muslim Brotherhood came to power. And the Egyptian people woke up in the morning and said, now we are free. And now where is the food? Where is the future? Where are the jobs, where are the opportunities? Which means when the West gets involved, not only were they mistaken by simply introducing democratic form of government more consistent with our system in the West, but it was also lacking a very critical component. And that is, freedom cannot exist unless it is sustained by other elements, and the other elements are other pillars to democracy. One of the most important pillars is economic development. What the United States has been doing is giving money to the Egyptian government to the tune of two billion dollars a year. Much of it is going to the military. Hardly any of it goes actually to the people themselves, in terms of using it for development projects so that the people will benefit. In my view, and I think you agree with me, to be able to empower the people, they have to give them an opportunity to do something, to be able to produce something on their own, to feel they are productive. So giving them freedom without giving them the means by which they can improve their life, it just won’t work.
SMK: I mean, even giving them the freedom, I would beg to disagree with the statement. The phrasing only of it. We agree in principle, but the phrasing of it, even giving the freedom, you cannot give freedom, the people have to earn it.
ABM: No, of course, no, I don’t mean giving, you cannot give freedom to anyone.
SMK: People have to earn it themselves.
ABM: They earn freedom, but let us say you have this political system that allows you to go and vote or be elected, and now you feel free in a sense. Politically free, but you are not free if you don’t have food. You’re not free if you don’t have health care. You’re not free if you don’t send to your kids to school. That’s what I’m talking about. And that has been missing and continues to be missing.
SMK: Two important things here, Alon. Number one, there is a chicken and egg question. In other words, when you say we need to fill the power vacuum with real civic engagement and civic society participation, for example having strong opposition and private institutions and NGOs, and real voices that represent the people. For that to happen, you need to have a degree of democracy and freedom. And for a degree of democracy and freedom that’s really healthy to exist, you need to have civic society institutions which are active and vibrant. So which one comes first? It’s the chicken and egg question.
ABM: Well the truth of the matter is, you cannot have one or the other. And to have an effective civil society and to have an effective political system, be that any kind of form of democracy, however adapted it is to the local scene, you’re still going to need the means by which to sustain it. And I keep emphasizing the importance of this when I talk to officials here, namely saying this. Democracy is a wonderful idea, and let us say it is adopted. But the people need more than just that. So you cannot develop the, for example, one of the pillars of democracy is having democratic institutions. Well, where are these democratic institutions? As a matter of fact, Egypt more than any other country has many institutions as such. You can call them democratic or not, but institutions do exist. But when the poverty is so rampant in Egypt, even those institutions that can actually function in a free and fair manner, they are unable to function.
SMK: It’s not only about poverty. You compound layers of issues that can impede the process of democratic transition, or can make it less smooth and less efficient and less effective. If you talk about the very high illiteracy rate – which I always tell my students is a big shame because the word paper as you may know comes from the word papyrus. So the whole notion of writing actually started in ancient Egypt thousands of years ago. That’s where the concept of writing started, with Hieroglyphics. So for us to have more than 40 percent illiteracy rate, I consider this a big shame. So we have a high illiteracy rate, which of course translates into less political participation, especially among certain segments of society. If you’re talking about rural populations or people in remote areas or women, the percentage is going to go even higher than that. And then at the same time you have economic challenges, you have infrastructure challenges. And there may be institutions in place, but how far are they really representative of let’s say the will of the people? You can have a political party that says I am an opposition party. That’s fine. But do you really have a popular base of support? Do you really have members, do you really have a voice? Do you really have a say in the political process? That’s a different story, and that’s why I want to make a very important point which is, it’s easy to oust dictators from office. But it’s very hard to figure what to do next.
ABM: Oh, absolutely.
SMK: And that’s I think one of the main things that went wrong in the Arab Spring, is that people thought once Mubarak is out, or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, or Gadhafi is out, then things are going to automatically change for the better, and suddenly we’re going to have democracy. It doesn’t work this way, because once the dictator is out of office, then what do you do next? If you don’t have a clear strategic plan in place, if you don’t have a vision, if you don’t have the tools to implement this vision into action, then you’re going to have a power vacuum. Once you have a power vacuum, who’s going to jump on it? It has to be a group that already has some kind of organizational tools and techniques and some kind of support, basically. And in the case of Egypt for example, there are two parties here, or two players, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Why are these the two players? Because they are the ones who have structure, and they’re the ones who have organization. The visionaries, the young people who are really the blood of the revolution, the people who had the vision and the goodwill, they had the dreams for change. But they did not have a clear, strategic plan. When you talk to these young people, they say ‘we made mistakes. And one of our biggest mistakes was we did not really have a clear strategic plan or vision about what to do next.’ In fact, some of them were even offered places like, do you want to be part of the government or serve as a minister? No, no, no, we don’t want to be in that capacity, we just want to be observing what’s happening, or maybe in the opposition seat, or maybe correct the new government. And now they feel like they made a mistake, because they left a power vacuum that then became filled by the Brotherhood and then later on by the military.
ABM: But this is an important point to make. And what happened here, by introducing quickly a democratic form of government for example in Egypt, without giving time for other secular parties to develop, to have their own agenda, to be able to share it with the public, you didn’t have— When I talk about institution, I’m not talking about political parties because they didn’t exist really, de facto did not exist in Egypt. You had so-called parties, but the one who was organized, was really the only real organized one other than the military, is the Muslim Brotherhood. It was very clear to us, if there is going to be an election, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to win. And why are they going to win? Because they were able over the years to provide help and means to the poor that didn’t have hardly anything. That’s why I go back to, if we are looking now for the future as I see it, if the United States or the European community wants to support any kind of Arab country, that is going to go through with a poor country, that needs to go through political development. You’ve got to be able, when you’re talking about illiteracy in Egypt. Well how do you change that picture? How do you make sure that more kids can go to school? You’re going to need funding. You’re going to need money. What the United States is doing and the European community has been doing is providing some financial assistance without demanding, where are you going to spend the money. Without making sure that the money is spent in areas that are going to help the people. And that is something that has been missing and will continue to be missing as long as we continue with a policy that is not addressing the needs of the people themselves. We say, now you can go to elections like I said before, but that did not work. Now, what lesson do we learn from that? That’s what we, you and I, want to look forward to the future. What will the future tell for us?
SMK: I mean, there are numerous lessons, many lessons. Number one I think is the idea of filling this power vacuum that we have been talking about. And let me just make a quick comment or quick remark about the Brotherhood, because the very paradoxical, very ironic point is that there have been decades of suppression of the Brotherhood; they were not allowed to play, and are not allowed to join, and they’re banned. They’ve always been called quote-unquote the banned group. And despite all of this banning and suppression and oppression, they still were able, like you said, to build a popular base of support because of two reasons you mentioned. One of them is the economic factor, which is, I’m going to provide subsidized services to the poor, and medical services, and subsidized—
ABM: And schooling sometimes—
SMK: Schooling items and all of the stuff, schooling and education. And if you are in an economically challenged country, then definitely providing these services at the subsidized rate is going to raise your popularity. And also Egyptians by nature, and many people in the Middle East, are by nature religious. We tend to be more religious people, whether we are Jews, Christians, or Muslims. We do have religion as part of our psyche and part of our identity. So I think these reasons together made that hard for any government to crack down on them, and I think that even when you crack down on them, that is not a good thing because they’re then prone to go underground.
SMK: And once these groups go underground that’s very dangerous, because that’s when you can breed the seeds of radicalization and extremism. As long as people are in the open and conversing and talking, right, sit with Sahar and hear me, and I hear you. You understand where I’m coming from. But if everything is kept in the dark and people don’t understand what this person thinks or what this group thinks, that’s when it’s really dangerous, because they’re going to be prone to go underground, and that will breed more radicalization and more extremism. So that’s an important point, one lesson for the future.
ABM: There’s no question. I think it’s a mistake to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not just a small organization that you can outlaw. They represent massive numbers, in Egypt specifically and elsewhere. But in Egypt, probably 30, 40 percent of the population believes in the movement, in the Muslim Brotherhood. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s a very significant community in Egypt. To try to marginalize them or label them as a terrorist organization, that’s the worst mistake I think that the current government in Egypt has made. And this is one lesson—
SMK: This is one lesson.
ABM: One lesson that other Arab countries need to learn.
SMK: Yes. Please don’t suppress these religious movements because this is prone to really plant the seeds of radicalization and the seeds of extremism. That’s one important piece. The second important lesson I think is giving more visibility and more power to the groups that we have seen becoming in positions of leadership in the Arab Spring, specifically youth. Young people, as we said, it’s a very young and very vibrant population in the Arab world. These young people need a healthy space in order to breathe and to express their thoughts and ideas, because we don’t want them to be recruited by the wrong people. We don’t want them to fall in the hands of some skewed evil groups that are preaching terrorism or fanaticism. And for that to happen, you need to give them a healthy space for self-expression and for building their own identities and building their own future. And equally I would say about women as well, that definitely we can invest in women and women’s leadership, which is another very important lesson coming out of the Arab Spring movement. A third lesson is, as we said earlier, it’s easy to oust dictators from office. But then what do you do next? And this question of what do you do next is a very, very important question, because as they say, if you don’t plan, then you are planning to fail. Right? If you don’t have a plan–
ABM: Oh, there’s no doubt.
SMK: If you don’t have a plan in place, then you are planning to fail because it means that you can have non-revolutionary forces filling the vacuum – whether it is military groups, or whether it is sectarian tribal factions fighting each other, or whether it is some orthodox religious parties that may not be necessarily be always invested in the democratic process. In every case, you’re not having this vacuum filled by the right group. And by the right group, I mean those who really had the vision for change but did not have the means, or the strategy to do it. So now is the time for them to reflect and say OK, wait a minute. What went wrong, and how can we put together an action plan and a strategy that can really hold well in the future, and carry a swell, moving forward. Another lesson of course is communication—
ABM: But before you go into the next one, the point here is that theoretically what you’re saying is absolutely important and necessary. Now, how do you translate that into reality? That is, you can have a vision of what you want. You can also have a plan of action: this is what we want to do. How do you go about implementing that when you still have a political system that is not allowing you to make your plans or to have a new objective? And so this is why in my view, it is another failure as a result of the first failure. The first failure is introducing a system that was not adaptable as quickly as we would have liked, because that didn’t happen. And the second one was the fact that there was no follow-up. Who is going to follow through? And that’s what the youth today face in most of the Arab countries. What do we do tomorrow, given the reality on the ground? Now every Arab country is different—the Gulf States versus the Syrians versus Egypt versus the state. The countries in North Africa, each of them are different and each of them are trying to deal with— They are not trying to deal, but basically those who did not experience yet the so-called Arab Spring are doing everything they can to suppress it, that is, not to allow the people to rise again. For example, the Saudis and the Gulf state are giving them money to keep them quiet. Other countries, there’s suppression – you have to behave yourself or else. It’s still in North Africa, Morocco, and elsewhere. This is how it is. So the problem here—for the youth to have a vision for the future, it is not enough to have a plan. It is not to have to have a vision. What is it going to take?
SMK: Again, the chicken and egg question.
ABM: What is it going to take in order to be able to implement that kind of vision?
SMK: The chicken and egg question we’re talking about earlier in terms of what comes first, right? Democracy and then followed by civic engagement, or civic engagement followed by democracy. That is not an easy question to resolve. I think it’s a very paradoxical, very important issue.
ABM: But there’s a third element, however. Let’s say you are able to get these two together and work together. My feeling is that as long as there’s no equitable distribution—when I say equitable distribution of resources, I don’t mean everybody should make the same amount of money. What I am saying is, there is poverty, there is abject poverty. Egypt is one of them. I used to go to Egypt very often, and what I saw in some areas, it was appalling, and people are living—basically you can see kids, thousands of them playing in the mud, no place to go, no schooling, nothing like that. And so what I’m saying is that even with a vision, even with a perfect plan, you’re going to need the resources.
SMK: Of course, they have to go hand in hand, you cannot be either.
ABM: And the resources are not coming. I mean, Egypt today needs tens of billions if not hundreds of billions of dollars to begin to develop some kind of economic system that is going to alleviate the poverty and everything that emanates from that, be that education, health care, and all of that.
ABM: And so the question here is this: in the Gulf states, what these governments have been doing to stay in power, they’ve been actually giving money, trying to prevent the people from rising, because if I can make a living and I can live in a decent way, well I don’t have any reason to complain. But you cannot say the same thing in Egypt.
SMK: Of course, that’s why we say that every country, even when we talk about the Arab region, we cannot just put everybody in the same basket, we cannot think of a one size fits all transition to democratization or reform, because every country will have its own unique set of political, historical, and social issues.
ABM: Exactly, exactly. And the question is, how do you go about that? And when we spoke on the phone, I think we both agreed. I feel that the Arab Spring remains in its infancy. I mean to say that this is not the end of the youth uprising, or let’s call it awakening, regardless. It may well be almost at the beginning stages. Every single Arab country is going to be affected by it. And the only way they can avoid that is by making, exactly what you said. Look at the mistakes, what happened before. What is it that people really want? What do the youth actually want? Do we have the means, and whatever means we have, how should we use these means in order to be able A), not to repeat the same mistakes—
SMK: Mistakes, yes.
ABM: And to begin to correct what needs to be corrected in terms of providing the basic necessities – that young men and women need to have an opportunity, to have hope, to have a future which they cannot see. And when they cannot see that, they rise. They become radicals. And this is what we are experiencing today.
SMK: Right. And of course, just a few more lessons that I just want to quickly highlight is also I always tell my students that as much as social media is very important to give an impetus, to give the first initiate, inertia or momentum for these movements, they were not enough to keep the ball rolling. To keep the ball rolling you need all the stuff you just mentioned now about infrastructure, economic, political, social factors. All of these factors together have to be taken into account. Otherwise you could not keep the ball rolling. You can start the initial momentum, but to keep it rolling you need all of these other things in place. So I always say, great, social media is wonderful in terms of mobilization and networking and giving the initial inertia. But beyond that, they are not magical tools, and they’re not going to bring about change and transformation all by themselves. They can only compliment and supplement the process of social and political transformation, if you have all of the other criteria and all the other requirements in place.
Another thing I also want to highlight is, we have always had a very narrow, elitist focus and urban focus, like we talk about, oh Arab Spring, Tahrir Square. I always tell my students, there were also many people in Alexandria, in Tanta, in Upper Egypt, in places outside of Tripoli, outside of Damascus, outside of all of these capitals. We should not be blinded about all of these populations who are in rural areas, in remote areas, less privileged maybe but still very important, and we should pay attention to them in our own scholarship and writing and academia, and give them more attention because it’s not all about the urban areas. It’s not all about the capital, it’s not all about the two or three percent of the elites in these societies only. We need to widen our focus and widen our perspective. Another lesson also for the future is, pay attention to the activists in the diaspora. This is very important because we have so many activists and protesters who are not able to express their views inside their own countries. They are afraid of intimidation or repression by the regime. Many of these, where do they go? They exercise their activism in the diaspora. That includes women’s groups as well.
ABM: Oh, absolutely.
SMK: So we need to hear the voices of these people and to respect them and respect their experiences, and also learn from their own insight and learn from their own perspectives. I call these voices in the diaspora, and I think we need to really listen very carefully to these voices from the diaspora and learn from their own experiences and their own lessons.
ABM: So when you say ‘we,’ I want to define we, who is we? And this is really the problem we have. Obviously you’re referring to who, civil society?
SMK: I had academics in mind, I was saying we to be honest with you, what I was thinking was academics and scholars who are writing about these issues.
ABM: But that’s not going to be enough. You also need people who are able to read it. When you talk about illiteracy 30, 40, 50 percent, you can write all you want but that’s not going to go anywhere. So the we is important. That is, the current, various Arab governments in the Arab states, are they in a position? Have they come to that? Have they been awakened? That is the main question to me. Have they been awakened to the fact that they can control the population up to a point, another five years, another 10 years, and 15 years? But somewhere, sometime, it is going to explode.
ABM: It is going to explode.
SMK: Absolutely, yes, the safety valve is not going to hold for a very long time, and the pot will explode.
ABM: Exactly. So the question is, what are the means, what are the methods, what is it that they need to do today in order to prevent it, regardless of the political system that exists in any of these countries. You have kings and emirs in some, you have dictators in another. You have semi-elected governments like in Tunisia. You have all kinds of mixtures of all types of political systems, but all of them share one thing in common. The young men and women are not happy. They are despairing. They want an outlet. They want a future. And each country is going to have to— When you say we, what is it that the ‘we’ need to do? Are they able to do it? Will they be wanting to do it?
And let me just say one thing about this, because when you look at these kings, like specifically countries in North Africa—Morocco is one, and others. From our experience, what they really want to do is continue to suppress the people, because the moment you give them more freedom—that’s how they think—then they’re going to want more. As the old saying goes, you give them a finger, they want to grab your hands. Take Syria for example. I know Bashar Assad, I met him. I knew, I used to Walid Moallem, he was a good friend of mine going back many, many years. And I know from him when Bashar came to power, he said, ‘I want to undertake some reforms. I don’t want to follow exactly what my father used to do.’ And he was open to reform, and when he was talking to the Ba’ath party and others, they were telling him no, no, no, no, if you do that, if you give them a finger, they’re going to grab your hand. You cannot absolutely do that. And so he basically followed what his father passed on to him. If the people rise against you, you have to chop them. You have to suppress them, you have to get whatever it takes. You cannot allow any uprising against you, or else you’re going to lose power. So what is happening is, even when you have reformers in any of these governments, the environment has not been created as yet.
SMK: We come back again to the chicken and egg question, because you need the environment in order to induce change, and to induce change you need to have a helpful environment.
SMK: So we keep coming back—I think if we had a solution for this issue Alon, we would probably be billionaires by now.
ABM: No, but the point is, we cannot settle for the fact that there’s a vicious cycle here. One is linked to the other and if we solve one, you cannot solve the other. Which means in such kinds of conflict, we still have to come up with a solution. What is the solution? And one of these, I go back to in my view, economic development is central to begin a process that is going to allow for any political development to take place.
SMK: I agree with you. I think it’s necessary, but I don’t think it’s sufficient. I think it’s important, , very important, but I think—you know what I think really, Alon, it is not the question that we can solve in this interview or any other interview for that matter. I think that these visionaries, the young people who had the vision, the young people who had this desire for change, to sit together and revisit again the exact same questions we are talking about in this interview. Right? What went wrong and what could be done about it? What are the lessons to be learned for the future, and how can we do things differently? And I think that in my own opinion I agree with you that there’s going to be a lot of room for these young people and these young voices to try to revisit their quote-unquote leadership. Because whenever people say the Arab Spring was a leaderless revolution I say wait a minute, I have an issue with this term. I think that it was semi-leaderless and I think there was some form of leadership, but it was not a top-down imposed leadership by a handful of people telling people what to do. It was rather a very diffused, grassroots, bottom-up approach which has its pros and cons. The pros of course are, these are young people, they have the vision, they have a desire for change. It is more participatory. That’s awesome. The bad side now as we’re learning six years later is that we have this challenge of the power vacuum that we’ve been talking about before. We have the infantile civil society that’s not developed sufficiently. We have the vacuum that needs to be filled. And as we said before, not having enough strategic vision, strategic planning among these young people, meant they had the goodwill, they had the dreams, they had the vision, but they did not have the tools or the means to implement an alternative reality.
ABM: Ok. That’s the point. They don’t have the tools, and they don’t have the means.
ABM: They could have the vision, they could have the [unclear], have the [unclear]. But the question here is, how do you implement it.
SMK: They have to figure this out. I don’t think it’s up to me or you or anybody else. They have to figure it out.
ABM: It’s not we that have to figure it out. To figure out such a plan of action, I or you or anyone from the outside – you are not an outsider – can go and say to them, do A, B, C and D. First of all, this is going to have to come from them.
ABM: But coming from them in and of itself, they cannot do it on their own because they need all kinds of resources. That is, unless there is a collaboration in my view between the government, between the various institutions and the public, to realize that this is leading to a dead end at best, or to another bloodshed. Which means, as long as the current government does not come to this realization and decide, let’s work with the youth. The whole phenomenon of radicalization today, whether you call it Islamic radicalization or otherwise, it stems from the same source, from the same roots. The total despairing and unhappy youth throughout the Arab world, and I tell the European community who are suffering from radical Islam so to speak from their perspective. And I say to them, you can have all the mechanisms to combat radicalization, but you are not dealing with the root causes. And the root causes are not necessarily in Europe. Of course there is lack of integration in Europe, this is a different story.
SMK: It’s not in Islam either. It’s in the lack of the proper atmosphere of development and civil society participation. And economic resources—
ABM: In the Arab countries.
SMK: Absolutely. I mean–
ABM: And this is where the West needs to be helpful.
SMK: This is where we all need to really pay attention. We all need to pay attention. When I say we here, I mean academics, scholars, writers, thinkers, intellectuals, and also hopefully officials and people in power. Unless they realize these blind spots and really start to pay attention to these areas, I don’t think there’s going to be much hope in terms of a real, positive change. There has to be attention paid to all of these blind spots, and the new vision of trying to visit all of these important areas we talked about. But at the end of the day, let’s go back again to a very important point. It has to be a home-made recipe of change, that the young people themselves have to figure out for themselves. Which way do you want to go, and how are you going to go about implementing it? Nobody can just give them a ready-made recipe and say, go ahead, buy it off the shelf. This is what you need to do, it’s not going to work.
ABM: No, this does not work. But again I’m emphasizing the point that if they have the vision, they have the planning, they have all of that, that in and of itself will not be enough unless there is a collaborative effort—
ABM: —by the government itself, and it serves the government’s interest to do just that.
SMK: Here’s a very important footnote. If the government itself, or governments, come to a realization that this is exactly what they need to do, then of course it would be ideal. But as long as they see it as a tug of war, as me or you, it’s me or you, it’s not us, it’s not we.
ABM: Exactly, exactly.
SMK: It’s not like we’re working together to achieve a goal. It’s a zero-sum game. Who is going to win? Me or you, let’s wrestle together. So unless they change this kind of mindset, if they change the mindset and they start to see exactly what you’re saying, that we need to provide the economic development and employment and all of these opportunities and a platform for expression so that we can fight or combat any form of radicalization or extremism, and also avoid the explosion that can go in many different directions, including God forbid full blown civil wars, as we saw in the tragic example of Syria, the worst humanitarian crisis in modern times, period. So to avoid this from happening, you need to have a change of mind. Now, whether the governments are going to come to this kind of realization, that is left to be seen, but I definitely certainly pray and hope that this will be the case. Because I don’t want to see a bloodbath. I don’t want to see civil wars. I don’t want to see innocent people being killed. I don’t want to see refugees, I don’t want to see rape. I don’t want to see wars. We don’t want these kinds of ugly things that are assailing us everywhere.
ABM: Yeah, this brings us back where we started, and I think we can finish with that. And that is where the Arab Spring is, and what lessons can be learned from the Arab Spring. This is exactly what you just said. The Arab Spring if anything, it teaches these governments that they need to wake up themselves and look at the population, look at the youth, which constitutes 70, 80 percent under the age of 25, and say to themselves, it’s only a question of time. What have we learned from the Arab Spring? How can we avoid another revulsion, another revolution, another bloodbath? And the only way to do it is to begin that kind of dialogue, and begin a process where the young men and women throughout the Arab world become part of this system, part of the process, in order to change the social dynamic.
SMK: There is no question about it. That means dialogue, dialogue, dialogue I think is the way to go. And I think unless more parties are open to this idea, open their eyes and hearts and minds to this idea of the importance of engaging in this kind of dialogue, we could not see much positive change. I very much hope and pray that there’s going to be more acceptance of this notion of openness and transparency, engaging in dialogue, in development, in true participation across the board. That would be the best way moving forward.
ABM: Exactly. Unfortunately, it may not come entirely from within. I mean it’s still those countries who depend to a great, some extent on the west. The West too ought to be nudging, or be pushing these leaders, tell them if you want to avoid a repeat of civil war in Syria, you want to avoid a repeat of what happened in Egypt and elsewhere, you’d better start to do something about it. But it all has to come from within, and has to be home-owned, home-grown.
SMK: Yes. Let me just make one last comment Alon, is the term Islamic radicalization. This term has been used a lot in the media. President Barack Obama refused to use the term Islamic radicalization, and the Pope actually said something very powerful. He said, don’t use the term Islamic radicalization, because if you do, then talk to me about Christian radicalization or Catholic—
ABM: Oh no, no, if I said that I didn’t mean it that way.
SMK: I know that you don’t buy into that, I know, but a lot of people, when they hear the term, just for your listeners, a lot of people when they hear the term, they automatically associate Islam as a religion with the idea of radicalization or extremism. So I always like to take the opportunity just to clarify this point, because radicalization or extremism is a mindset; it’s a frame of mind.
ABM: And it’s absolutely not limited to Muslims.
SMK: Or to any religion. If somebody says the Jewish extremist, I say wait a minute, Judaism is not about extremism. If some group of Jews happen to take the religion to a fanatical or extremist level, religion itself cannot be blamed.
SMK: We cannot say that’s Jewish extremism or Christian extremism or Islamic extremism, because that would mean that it’s the religion itself which is at fault. And it’s not.
ABM: No, no, absolutely. And talking about the three monotheistic religions, all of them preach peace, preach amity, preach friendship.
SMK: That can be a topic for another podcast.
ABM: And so there’s no question, there are those hypocrites within all communities who use religion as a tool by which to subjugate, by which to—
>SMK: Exactly. A tool to reach power and a tool to implement their own narratives.
ABM: ISIS is one example. Al-Qaeda’s another example.
SMK: We can think of many examples.
ABM: But I want to leave it on a positive note, I hope. And that is, when I see young men and women yearning for better days, and I feel strongly that the day will come, as long as they remain committed to what they’re feeling, and exactly what you just suggested before, they need to know their place and they need to know that they have rights.
ABM: And they need to know how to pursue and realize these rights. And the governments who are wise – any government in the Arab world that is wise enough to realize that they cannot sustain the current status quo, they must wake up also and begin this kind of process.
SMK: It seems to me that there are lessons for everybody to learn, right? There are lessons for the governments to learn, that they should learn exactly what you just said now, that suppression and repression does not cause stability, does not lead to stability. Because many of these regimes—
ABM: In fact the opposite.
SMK: Exactly. Many of the regimes say it’s either me or it’s anarchy, right, as Mubarak said for a long time. If I go, it’s going to become anarchy, it’s going to become chaos. They need to revisit this notion, that repression and suppression never leads to stability. It just leads to putting some kind of pressure on society. People are going to go underground. You’re going to become radicalized, and society itself is going to suffer big time, and all of a sudden you can have an explosion and you don’t even know which direction it is going to take you to. It’s going to become a disaster. So that’s a lesson for the government.
The lesson for young people is, it’s not enough to have the vision. You also have to have the tools and the means to implement this vision and take it to the right direction. So you must have strategic planning, and you must have coordination of different resources and coalition building to be able to implement your good vision and put it into good actions. And the lesson for intellectuals and academics and scholars is, we have to revisit many of these blind spots that we have been talking about today in terms of people in the diaspora, in terms of marginalized groups, in terms of the activism of youth and women, in terms of understanding the potential of all of these growing dynamic populations in this evolving region, in terms of revisiting what you just mentioned about the social and economic development and how it ties into all of these issues. These are also lessons for us as intellectuals, academics, and scholars, to re-think all of these notions. The cyber activists, they have to re-think about their tools and their means, right? Avoid things like clicktivism or slacktivism, the idea that by sharing the link, now you became an activist. Congratulations. Well it takes much more than that obviously. Right? So you need to think about your tools. Also, are they sufficient? Maybe they’re necessary but they’re not sufficient. So there are so many lessons for everybody. I hope everybody tries to really understand these lessons.
ABM: We hope so, and we hope there’ll be some kind of— Within each of these entities you mentioned, you need leadership, and that is unfortunately still lacking. But we have a role to play. People like yourself and myself, we have to talk more and more about it. The time has come, because we can all envision things, but we’re going to have to be able to try to define, to suggest some charts, some road. This is the path to take, and we hope that over time things will change without another revolution or without another civil war that has exacted so much pain.
SMK: And that’s why we need dialogue, right? I mean, me and you have been part of the Middle East Dialogue for many years now, and the whole idea of dialogue is to try to bring people together and try to have this kind of discussion and conversation. Because out of the inoculation of people’s ideas, that’s how you can get great ideas and get a much better path for peace and for development, which we hope is going to be the case.
ABM: Absolutely, and I fully agree with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.
SMK: Thank you.
ABM: No, the pleasure is mine, I’m glad we were able to swing it.
SMK: Thank you.
My guest today is David Rabinowitz, Director of the Mental Health Clinic at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. He has worked as a psychiatrist in charge of psychiatric outpatient services in both South Africa and Israel, and has invested in the development and teaching of professional skills and approaches in community mental health care.
My discussion with him today focuses on the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A full transcript can be found below (edited for clarity).
Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is David Rabinowitz, director of the mental health clinic at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. He has worked as a psychiatrist in charge of psychiatric outpatient services in both South Africa and Israel, and has invested in the development and teaching of professional skills and approaches in community mental health care. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.
What I wanted to talk about today is actually something that you and I have discussed several times in the past, and that is the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and look at it from a number of perspectives including history, religion, ideology, the mutual delegitimization, of course the concern over national identity, and what it is going to take to be able to reconcile these differences, if at all possible. So maybe we should begin with the history as we have discussed before. The historic narrative that the Israelis and the Palestinians have been using all along obviously contradicts one another, because they have developed such narratives that suits their objective, their goal, their purpose, and have been able to impart that to their own respective publics.
I think nowadays the majority of Israelis, perhaps the majority of Palestinians, actually believe in that kind of narrative that is certainly not accurate, but has been promoted in order to create a certain environment conducive to what the leadership would like to project. So what is that historic narrative from your perspective? How do you see that? I mean, I have my own views on it as well, of course.
David Rabinowitz: I do feel that a useful model to operate here is the idea of the Rashomon, based on that very famous Japanese movie, which has to do essentially with the subjectivity of perception. Because what is interesting is not that there are differing narratives, but those narratives are held with a passion and a certainty and a level of belief which often reaches the level of the sacred. And yet if we take just as an isolated example, what might have happened in the 1948 war is that certain events, this is clear, have been described differently by both sides.
ABM: Well that’s exactly the point.
DR: And we’re dealing however with the subjectivity of perception, first and foremost, which have been transformed into almost sacred narratives, believed with a passion and a certainty. To the point whereby I recall reading in the past when the Palestinians and Israelis did meet around the table, to deal with history, with their collective histories, it didn’t really resolve as a collective history even through the basis of dialogue. So the starting point is very problematic. The starting point is passionately held. Not just differing narratives, but passionately held narratives.
ABM: Yeah, passionately held narrative, this is exactly what it is, but here is what I see. That is, when you read the history, the way it’s been projected or written by the Israelis from their perspective, and you see that from the Palestinian perspective, this is like reading history and accepting it at face value, the way it’s been read, the way it’s been seen. And that obviously creates certain perceptions about one another. So how do you in fact mitigate that? In my view, and I’m sure you agree with that, you will not be able to bridge the gap between the two sides. Obviously history’s not the only impediment, we’ll be talking about other elements. But you cannot bridge the gap between the two sides unless you can create a narrative that is more or less acceptable to both sides.
Let’s talk about the real example here, in terms of the historical perspective. We can go back to 1917, from the time the Balfour Declaration was issued, one hundred years ago exactly. So from that time on, Palestinian resentment and narrative about Israel – what the Jews want to do and how are they going to go about it – has been written and established and promoted within the Palestinian body politic as well as the public itself. The 1948 and the Nakba, that is, the catastrophe that the Palestinians speak about, and that is from their perspective. Israel was the culprit that actually expelled the Palestinians from their own land, and occupied it. Whereas the Israelis maintain, know, that what happened is that the Palestinians left on their own, they had been encouraged by the leadership of the Arab states to leave, and come back for the spoils. So these are the two sets of narratives that have been juxtaposed to one another, and actually the discussion about these has been further deepened, and both sides have been trying over time to further prove this is the case. And obviously textbooks and, other than the public narrative is being now engrained in the mind of most Israelis and the Palestinians.
DR: I’m going to permit myself at this point to draw on the fact that I also have a separate life experience as a doctor in the field of mental health. And I permit myself to say it reminds me very strongly of how a couples therapists is to deal with a couple for whom one has had an affair outside of the marriage. The strategy of treatment is to bring the two to a point whereby they are able to draw a line and cease being historical.
DR: That is the key to it. Because I don’t think, I noticed that certain academics recognizing the complexity of the double narrative have attempted to propose bridging narratives. I don’t think bridging narratives are going to work because the ideas are too sacred. No one’s going to give up on them. But where it is possible is to shift the mindset from the past to the present and the future. But I have to qualify that by saying that it will not happen through persuasion. It will happen because something has changed. On both sides, that there is a will to do so. And what has to be changed to make the will is the problem.
ABM: The question here that you brought about, a couple, where the husband committed adultery.
DR: Can be the wife too.
ABM: OK, or the wife for that matter. Now what happened here, the fact that adultery has been committed, you cannot change. That is, to the extent that one or the other admitted that, you cannot change. The question now is, since this is a fact, can we in fact equate the history that is being manipulated, going back again to the formation of the state of Israel 1948? Can you in fact treat that as a fact, as if one or the other committed that kind of adultery that you cannot mitigate? You have to accept it and you have to move on by accepting it. In my view neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, at least not at this juncture, are willing to abandon that whole narrative that they’re going to be proven, because neither side wants to admit that they were wrong in how they see history evolved from that point on. So that is one of the problems of course. That doesn’t suggest that it cannot be resolved. But I’m saying this is like a fact that cannot be disputed. The narrative can be adjusted or restated in order to reach any kind of process of reconciliation.
DR: Well let’s just identify it for a moment. Not so much what is required for change, but wherein lies the resistance to change. And I think an important factor in the resistance to change is that the political elites on both sides are invested in the stability of the narrative.
DR: They don’t want the narrative to change for many reasons. Amongst other things is that those narratives are a source of political power. If the narratives change, political power is threatened. And I think that itself is a highly stabilizing factor. So therefore, I have to draw on something which I think came from you, Alon, in previous discussions, and that is, who is going to change the motivation for a rapprochement? It will not come from the political elites at this time. I don’t think the political elites want it, and it is in their best interest to maintain it. I remember in our previous discussions how you emphasized the importance of bottom-up. In other words, what about the populations? After all, the political elites are listening to their electorates in the democratic setting or in the social setting of the Palestinians.
ABM: And that’s I think a very important point, that the fear of change could compromise the position of the political elite, and the position they have been taking all along has to change. And since they themselves would not voluntarily change, two or three things will have to happen. A) a recognition that unless they change their narrative, things will continue to be stuck and there’ll be no progress. Right? But that’s changed, since they were not. And in my view, they will not do so voluntarily. Look at what’s been happening between the Israelis and Palestinians going back decades now.
ABM: Voluntarily, they did not change. Which means, what we talked about before is that the bottom up approach is still critical in my view to reconcile the historic narrative. Because on their own, they will not do that. That is, the political elite will not do that on their own, unless they’re faced with potentially catastrophic developments. That is, they want to prevent a catastrophic development. They may decide well, it’s better to change our approach rather than be faced with that catastrophe. And I don’t think that either the Israelis or the Palestinians today see the potential development of such catastrophe, albeit it may very well be in the offing.
DR: Now you see, we have to at this point mobilize additional concepts, because what you’re referring to as the potential catastrophe generated, or shall we say predicted by the current configuration, you and I see it, but the political elites do not. Or if they do, they have an interest in excluding it from the public narrative, because it affects their power base. I would like to add to that I think that there’s an additional reason, and that is the political elites on both sides are infused with intense ideological and religious convictions. An ideological or religious conviction has amongst other things, one of its functions is that it leads people to cherry pick data as they see fit. The right wing accuses the left wing of this as well, everyone accuses everyone of this. But I think it’s so clear that if the holiness of the land for the Israeli right-wing political elite is a powerful belief system, then they will have blind spots for everything else that interferes with their perception, and exactly the same on the other side.
ABM: Exactly, there is no question, you cannot single out the historic narrative and say, this is the only problem. That is, this has always been reinforced by what you just said. That is, there is a religious, ideological element that reinforces the narrative that they’ve been using all along. And so, naturally we can move to this, how religion in fact is further augmenting, strengthening the psychological impediment between the two sides. So we have the public narrative on one hand, and now they have to add to it the layer of religion – how religion is actually making that impediment much worse. And that is the Israelis, the Jews, and the Palestinians, from a religious perspective, they have a claim to the same land. And this is even more difficult to reconcile because it’s based on a set of beliefs.
So the question here is, whereas like I said before, you can rewrite some part of the history if you’re willing to admit that you have been misleading. You can change your ideology to suit you, to suit the time. We’ve seen ideologies – communism, fascism, all kinds of isms – that died because they failed to be able to get that kind of support, steady sustainable support, whether from the public or otherwise. So they disappeared, there was no support for it. Whereas with religion, you don’t have to concern yourself to prove anything. So here in my view, I’m not suggesting that you cannot reconcile the religious differences between the two sides. That’s a major, major element that’s preventing both sides from making the kind of compromises that’s going to be necessary. The question is, what sort of compromise can you advance from a religious perspective?
DR: Well, first of all, I have to make the picture worse. And that is that on the Israeli side, an important factor in my view is that right from the outset of the establishment of the state, religion was not separated from the state. And from the Palestinian side, what I understand, to my best understanding of Islam, is that it is inherently a political religion in that there is no clear distinction, as I understand it, between Islamic practice and government. The two somehow blend in a way that I don’t fully understand. Now here we come back to this remarkable thing we all notice from time to time, in this remarkable mirror imaging that takes place between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Both societies have an infusion of intense religious belief right up to the level of the political elites and the power structure, which means that we begin a greater difficulty, and that is the fact that religious sectors have political power and have the power to implement their own policies, and in this way influence government policy on both sides.
ABM: Exactly, exactly. Because when you use religion to augment, to support your political position, your political ideology for that matter, it’s extremely difficult to argue against it. That’s the whole point. So in Israel and among the Palestinians, religion was from day one part and parcel of the ideology and in terms of how that will translate to a political position. So that is, the Jews’ claim to all of the land, the ancient land of Israel is there, that has not changed. The current leadership continues to repeat that time and again. The Palestinian claim to Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, has not changed. That is something that is. And then both sides have actually meshed that into their political positions, which is making things extraordinarily difficult again.
DR: Yes. I think it’s important to add that, similar to the discussion on narratives. Implicit in this discussion is that whatever is being decided upon, at a political level, the eyes are cast backward to history. It is the word of Abraham and Isaac, it is the ancient prophets in Islam who are speaking all the time. In other words, when we’re talking about this, there are other people in the room metaphorically speaking. They are the forefathers and the prophets, and they’re there in the room playing a role in decision-making at one level or another. Now, I think all this simply adds to the fact that this adds to the complexity and that it makes it at face value impossible to talk about reconciliation. But, where I think that the issues still may lie, the sort of only hope in inverted commas that we may want to talk about over here is that in both societies there are strong secular dimensions, secular elements of the public who, perhaps we might say that they are too silent. We do not hear from them enough. I just want to add that I also see this in a way as linking to that old debate between modernity and the historical and religious past. There’s an enormous tension there that I think is also infused in this debate as well. And to what extent can modernity win out? Well, modernity, that is to say the secular public, or the moderate religious public, have an enormous task over here because they perceive the existing power structure infused with religion as monolithic and extremely, extremely powerful. Too powerful to model.
ABM: Exactly, I agree with you. I mean, that is exactly the situation today. And this argument has been very effective and is being used by both sides very, very effectively, and that’s another thing that adds another layer to the difficulty of convening a real process of reconciliation. I think one of the reasons that they are trying to avoid such a process, both Israelis and Palestinians, is because they know that they have to obviously compromise on the religious precept itself. Albeit not changing their set of beliefs, but finding a formula whereby they can still believe in what they believe, but leave some kind of room for compromise. Otherwise, there will be no future—for example, what is the future of Jerusalem? How are you going to resolve that aspect? Which means, whereas you have that set of beliefs, both sides have it, if we assume that this cannot ever be reconciled, then there is nothing to talk about. So we have therefore to find a formula, that is the process of reconciliation. The purpose of it is to look for a formula where you can in fact reconcile even a set of beliefs that usually are taken at face value, that’s for granted, that you cannot modify.
DR: Well, I certainly agree with that, but I like to put forward not – I think it’d be most arrogant to even suggest that there is a solution derived from political psychology, but I do think that there’s some questions to ask over here that may be relevant to finding the way forward. The first question is, what would it take. To bring, first of all the people, you’re talking grassroots, you’re talking bottom-up. What would it take to bring the people, predominantly into a here-and-now type mode, rather than an essentially historical mode. Because if people who influence their governments, not necessarily in the media sense, but it comes about if there’s a change at the level of the electorates, and the change at the level of the people, and we’re coming back to the first point in a certain way.
And really the question is, the moment such a thing could be brought about, the time frame, the time perception, alters from the past to the present and the future. Only then can one perhaps give religion its honored place and an honored place for the prophets, but re-focus the here-and-now on the pragmatics, and bring about further change at the level of the elites. This is very, very utopian what I’m saying, but I actually think there’s no other way. Given the circumstances of the moment, I actually think there’s no other way.
ABM: But you need to look at the religious perspective, the Israeli makeup population-wise in Israel. Better than half of the population are Jews, but they might called secular Jews.
ABM: And so they don’t bother actually in even dealing in any direct, effective way with the religious implication of the conflict. For them they see question of territory, who can have what, how to divide the territory, what sort of political system – they are not as concerned because they really don’t see it. Their perception of the conflict does not have a strong religious component. Whereas among the Palestinians, religion, as you said correctly, religion is part and parcel of the political process.
ABM: From bottom-up, all the way. Top to bottom, bottom-up. And that is a significant difference there. That is one of the reasons I feel very strongly that under no circumstance the Palestinians will accept any solution that will not grant them a capital in East Jerusalem. Because for them, that is something that you cannot compromise, you cannot mitigate. Whereas the Israelis, the secular, as we have seen during the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas, there was basically an agreement on the future of Jerusalem. There was an agreement, which granted the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem. So the Israelis can be more flexible from a religious perspective. The Palestinians will not be.
DR: Or you see, over here we’re touching a little bit on the zero-sum issue, because obviously no side can have hope to have Jerusalem exclusively for themselves. The issue here is the division of Jerusalem. That’s how I understand it. What I want to say on that, sorry, I think it’s a bit of a dangerous statement to make. Not so much the division of Jerusalem, but the sharing of Jerusalem. I think that’s better to say. Now, the thing is this. I’ve noticed, I’ve read that an enormous amount of effort has been poured into building proposals of a highly sophisticated and skilled nature, which could lead to the successful sharing of Jerusalem. The problem being that these proposals are essentially rational, whereas the religious component is not.
ABM: Yeah, but not only rational, I think it’s also practical. I’ve been saying all along, given the reality now in Jerusalem, how far the Israelis have gone in East Jerusalem, how many settlements they build there, the number of Israelis living in East Jerusalem, you have created now a set of conditions that is impossible to reverse. From any perspective, you cannot reverse it. Which means, in a way, that makes the solution to Jerusalem easier. Or depending on how you see it, much more difficult, from the Palestinian perspective. They continue to demand for example that the Israelis should be getting out of East Jerusalem, there will be no solution. Which means, if you accept now the reality that he’s talking about, how do you share the city? You share the city based on what exists today. That is, there is no way you can introduce major changes to the current status quo, and be able to agree. So the status quo will have to be accepted more or less the way it is. Which means, what is Israeli is Israeli, what is Palestinian is Palestinian, and both basically can have their cake and eat it at the same time.
What I’ve been saying this all along, you institutionalize what’s on the ground. And so the Palestinians can still have East Jerusalem, Israelis can still have West Jerusalem, that way you’re sharing the city, but everything else basically will remain the same. There’s no border, there are no fences, the city will remain precisely the way it is, united. And this is in my view one way you can mitigate one of the religious dimensions of the conflict, one aspect of the conflict. And that’s how I see it.
DR: Well you know that is of course a very creative approach, because as you correctly say, I’ll put it in slightly different terms, it permits ongoing perceptions which are not under assault.
DR: The Israelis can say it is all ours, the Palestinians can say it’s ours. And that’s really important. But I just have to add to that again, there is an intense religious involvement over here, which is monistic in its thinking and will not always permit creative solutions.
ABM: This is true.
DR: I mean, there’s a militancy here that is very problematic, arising out of a passionately held belief. And I think that the issue of faith versus reason is philosophically very complex.
ABM: This is true, obviously it’s very, very, very complex, and many philosophers try to tackle these issues. And once they reduce any political concept or religious concept into a reason, then it is no longer holy, it is no longer religious for that matter. So basically you’re reducing it to the human level, and that’s what both sides want to avoid at all costs. That is why I think to suggest that they can change their mind. The only thing is, if I were to negotiate now with a Palestinian on the religious perspective, I would say to them, look, you can go back to your forefathers, you admit Abraham, Jacob, Isaac were the prophets of both Jews and Muslims alike. Well, maybe God dictated, wanted that you, the Jews and Arabs, live in the same land. Because if God wanted otherwise, he would have not created this problem in the first place. So if you are a believer, you cannot pick and choose what you believe in. You understand what I’m saying?
DR: Well I think what I’m seeing, what you’re saying, are the seeds of a bridging narrative, at least at the religious level.
ABM: At the religious level. That’s exactly the point. Because you cannot change it, but you can change the narrative about it.
ABM: To create a common ground over which both sides can agree.
DR: Yes. In fact, you’re saying that those who can invest intellectually, politically, and theoretically in this area should do more because there are grounds for a bridging of the religious narrative, strangely enough, given the fact that the religious narratives on both sides are so rigid and entrenched.
ABM: That’s right.
DR: It’s a paradox.
ABM: Yeah. But there is a resolution to this particular paradox, that’s what I’m trying to say. And I think it’s there. And unfortunately, it has not been fully explored, and that is part of what you and I are talking about with a process of reconciliation. That is, you’re going to have to have that kind of dialogue about these particular issues, how you are going. Because notwithstanding who still believes in a two-state solution, they’re still going to have to face this.
ABM: How do you resolve this issue? Because it is there, it’s not going to disappear. So, I just want to move to the ideological conflict between the two sides. And here of course you have the Zionist, specifically the revision of Zionism that took over for all intents and purposes, at least in this current situation in Israel. And the idea here is that the Jews have the right to create their own state in that particular part of the world, and they’re invoking both historic and religious to prove, to show, to demonstrate, to insist on the fact that this is our land and it’s going to be all of it, not part of it. That’s the ideology that’s being held today with the right wing of the Israeli populace.
Now again here you have a question, how do you compare that, how do you reconcile that with the ideology that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority believe in, or try to promote? Because they have a different set, and I’m talking not religion now, not talking about history, but about ideology. Ideologically speaking, Hamas wants to get rid of Israel, wants to destroy Israel. That’s the ideology, that’s their political platform. The Palestinians—well, take it from there.
DR: Well you see, first of all I actually think that at heart, the Zionist ideology sprung from survival. I mean, its roots lie in survival.
DR: The older discourses, the historical discourses of the Jew in Europe, debating between assimilation and religion, and the third option of Zionism, all of this had to do with survival. What is the best way to survive in a given society? And I think that the survivalist instinct continues to be hidden within the Zionist ideology, it’s always there, in one form or another. But where I think the greatest importance about this, well let me step aside to one side for a moment and just say that I think that in certain respects ideology which is always present in politics, I mean it’s, no matter which politics, the real issue is the intensity of the conviction. And some ideologies are held with the conviction that people are willing to die for them, and blood is spilt over ideology. So let’s not trivialize it. It’s enormous.
ABM: No, it’s very powerful, and you put it very well. That is, the ideology here, it is driven by the Jews’ fear or concern over survival itself.
ABM: Absolutely this is exactly the case. Which means that is this is where the whole issue of National Security comes to play in Israel. That is, they attach borders to national security, their settlements are national security, their current political position is national security. And whether it’s genuine, even though it may not be genuine, does Israel really have that much concern about national security when it enjoys far greater powers over the Palestinians?
DR: That brings us to a ping pong you see, between on the one hand existential anxiety of the immediately operating kind. And the other one is also survival, which are really two sides of the same coin. Where I think that the Zionist ideology for example plays a very important role is that, when I think about, in the earlier years of the state, and even now, that again the Zionist ideology, the Palestinian ideology always have one thing in common, and that is the suppression of data, or suppression of the awareness of data that doesn’t fit the ideology.
ABM: Oh yes.
DR: And so in that sense, we are left again with this issue that— I mean the classical story when more contemporary historians began to look at documentation and found data which challenged the ideological perceptions of Zionism. Zionism reacted to that. It was very hard for them to accept that; in fact, some would have preferred the archives to remain closed. What is my point over here? Again we’re coming back to this issue that ideology feeds many things. It feeds the stuckness or the intransigence of the conflict, because ideology on the Zionist side has to do with survival on the one hand. But I have to add that Zionism also includes a kind of a revanchist approach, because the land that they didn’t get from the settlements in 1948 is still regarded as theirs, they want it back. It’s true that you could argue whether it’s revanchist in the sense the land was taken away and they want it back, certainly the Hamas ideology and to a certain extent the extremist Palestinian ideologies are clearly revanchist, and they want the land back. So certainly it is not only that there is distance between the two, but conflict. Ideology I think feeds conflict much more than religion, although religion plays no small role in this as well.
ABM: There’s no question, if you go back to the Zionist ideology from the very beginning, the whole motive behind the creation of the state of Israel, and that is, after years, centuries of persecution, expulsion, death, and all of that, the instinct for survival. That is, the time has come for us to have a state of our own in order to prevent these types of things from ever happening back to the Jews. But the problem with that, because it happened now in modern Israel, notwithstanding Israel’s military prowess and ability to deal with enemies in a very effective way, and has less reason to be concerned about survival itself per se. However, they fashion policies as such to support their concern over survival. I think this is one of the reasons you see this. What the government is doing today is taking action in the name of national security. You see the word national security invoked every single time the Israelis take this action or that action.
So this will bring us to the other point that I wanted to raise with you, which is the mutual dehumanization or victimization. And that’s all connected to the previous point. In many ways, to justify what you are doing, you have to deny the right, the existence, or for that matter to de-legitimize the other side in order to make your point, in order to solidify your position, and I think that both sides have been engaged in that systematically going from 1948 to even before that.
DR: Well you see I think this brings us right into the middle of an issue of perception, and that is the zero-sum perception. I’m stressing the word perception because I think it is wrong to see it in any other terms. The perception that if one side wins the other loses, is the recipe for ongoing conflict, and I notice, for example this is very overt in the Israeli public political discourse. I have clearly heard Netanyahu say that there are no two points of view. There is only one, and that is the Zionist narrative. That is the only correct narrative, there is no other. In other words, the zero-sum perception also is one which the political elites need on both sides because that maintains the past.
Now the thing is, this also, the zero-sum perception has its roots also in the double narrative, but I have to add an extra issue which we talked about previously in the different podcast, is the question of what has been referred to by a scholar as group narcissism. And that is the in-group versus the out-group. The point is that the in-group psychology in the political setting has amongst other things the devaluation and the delegitimization of the other side to the point whereby they are no longer seen as human, and can be killed or massacred.
ABM: Exactly. Exactly.
DR: And both sides hold to this.
ABM: Both sides hold to this, and in many ways they are executing that approach day in and day out. That is what, from the Israeli perspective, justified the annexation of more territory. They controlled the Palestinians in ways that can be at times very ruthless. It is all justified, and the Palestinians too see it that way—terrorizing the Jews, terrorizing the Israelis, is very legitimate because that is the only way they can actually balance what they are experiencing themselves. You see? And so this mutual delegitimization serves their ideological position, and it serves their also religious precepts as well.
DR: I have to add that, it’s not just that it serves the purpose of polarization. It also provides a legitimization for lethal action. I think it’s become part of the public narrative that many people have felt, that we see killing taking place every day in the IPC, Israel-Palestine conflict, killing is taking place every day, one way or another. And I see that as a direct consequence of this particular structure that we are talking about now, this pattern that we’re talking about. So it’s very, very malignant. It’s highly malignant.
ABM: And what the politicians are doing on both sides is making things worse. Because this is exactly— As a matter of fact, I think there is a deliberate pursuance of this particular aspect to the conflict, to keep it the way it is. I think this is where comes the idea from the Netanyahu government, where it actually believes that it can manage the conflict almost indefinitely.
DR: That’s right, yes.
ABM: That’s where it came from. That is, it continues to victimize the Palestinians, continues to portray them as illegitimate. They are people, but they are not a nation as Netanyahu’s father kept saying, and therefore they cannot have a state because they are just people who happen to be living there. They don’t constitute a nation. And that is what’s been constantly been said and repeated time and again. And obviously there’s a significant number of Israelis who bought into this argument.
DR: Yes indeed. I’m reminded in this context of the earlier slogans of Zionism at the time of the establishment of the state. And the classical one which fits right here in this discourse is ‘a people without a land, for a land without people.’
DR: Which I think fits this issue of delegitimization, dehumanization, and essentially we see this even in political terms where both sides are saying all the time, make the other side disappear.
ABM: Yeah, and there’s wishful thinking. That over time, something is going to give. And both sides, I really think as long as they continue to believe that they can in fact improve their position over time. Even though on the surface the Palestinians may seem like they are losing, they don’t see it that way. They feel that their consistency, their tenacity, their resistance, violent and otherwise will eventually prevail. Whereas the Israelis are doing everything possible in order to create new facts on the ground, to gain over time, they want to keep gaining over time. And both sides, as long as they feel they can continue to gain, they are not going to be willing to make the kind of compromise necessary in order to reach an agreement.
DR: Well I have to add, you see, that it’s been pointed out by many clever souls, many clever scholars, that power is aphrodisiac. And keeping power supersedes sometimes the interests of the state. I mean, here what we are saying is, we all see all the time that the public political discourse in Israel and in Palestinian society contains these themes that we’ve been discussing all the time. Because there are these things that constitute the theory upon which the political elites build political power.
ABM: Right, right.
DR: So if we want to talk about stuckness and intransigence of the IPC, I think all of these factors come together around that. I’m afraid it’s a somewhat cynical point of view, but I think it is correct.
ABM: That’s right. Now, I just want to add the other element that we talked about before, and that is national identity. I think for both Israelis and the Palestinians, their national identity is still in its infancy. And one of the reasons, at least one if not more than that, the continuing resistance to change the status quo is because there is the fight about defining what is my nationality, who am I. That is, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have been able to establish that identity, and understand it like say, there is an American national identity, there is a French national identity, but what is the Israeli national identity, by definition? And it’s still being formed. The same thing is with the Palestinians, still being formed. And the reason why they resist change is because they have not reached a point where they have formed a clear identity, who they are, what they are, what they want. And as long as that identity is still in its infancy, you’re going to see greater resistance. Do you agree with that?
DR: Not only do I agree with that, but I want to just add a bit of psychology substance to it.
DR: And that is this. I think it’s a truism, as a sort of guiding point you could say, that the less mature the political identity, the greater it is vulnerable or perceived to be vulnerable—
ABM: Perceived to be vulnerable, yeah.
DR: –and requires defenses against things that may interfere with the growth of their identity. French identity, Dutch identity, American identity, British identity, are taken for granted, in much the same way that, if the clock says 10 o’clock in the morning, it’s morning, no one questions it. It’s a given. But certainly I think it’s a very, very important point that identities are in fact vulnerable in the Middle East. Israel-Palestine, the Palestinian identity, although the Palestinians—I know that there’s discussion about this, but the consolidation of a more clear political identity of the Palestinians is relatively recent in political terms, in Israel as well. The political identity of the Jews does not go back two, four, five, or six thousand years, because there was a different identity. It was the identity of a people, the identity of a religion. But as a political– Now the point being, I’m just giving substance to what you’re saying.
ABM: You are right.
DR: I would even take a metaphor and say that political identity in Israel, and the Palestinian political identity are in a manner of speaking still in their adolescence. Adolescents are extremely resistant to having someone impose an identity on them.
ABM: And that doesn’t go back like you said centuries, it goes back really only less than a hundred years.
ABM: And that’s a hundred years in the scheme of things that are not a long enough time to establish that kind of identity that is going to, that they can settle on it and understand it and eventually become mutually recognized by one another. We are not there yet.
DR: I would like to also add a second component to this discourse, and that is, what constitutes a healthy identity? I think that I would probably best leave it to political scientists and philosophers to answer that kind of question. But I do think that a political identity is less than healthy if it is constantly dealing with death, destruction, and blood. And constantly dealing with aggression, and constantly dealing with conflict. This cannot be a healthy identity, and the real question is, what would constitute a healthy identity here? Well, I have no idea. But I do think that the building blocks of such a healthy identity will come about with a reduction of the conflict.
ABM: Exactly. But what happened here as long as both sides have certain claims. You see, their national identity now hangs on what is going to be the ultimate solution, so to speak. That is, as long as Israel still has certain claims, and the Palestinians have certain claims, there’s a direct link between those continuing claims that has not been satisfied, and reaching to where they realize. That is, they equate national identity with a state that is real, not challenged, and exists. And as long as, even among the Israelis, there is a state, but it’s still in flux. And the Palestinians have no state, so that national identity cannot be formed unless it is also defined by a geographic area. You know what I’m saying.
DR: There’s no clear border.
ABM: There’s no clear borders, and therefore you cannot identify as a nation as such, even though Israel doesn’t have also clear borders as yet. And until they get to a point where there’s an agreement, then you can say that they’re coming closer and closer to defining what is their national identity. Because I think that direct link to the land itself.
DR: Well you see I also want to at least keep into focus one step ahead, and that is not only what is the identity, but to what extent can each side feel that their identity is healthy. That they have trust in it. That they have faith in that identity. That they feel positive about that identity. They are proud to fly the flag. Not because of militancy or survival or humiliation, but for other reasons. And I think that it’s not there yet. In my view, it’s not there yet.
ABM: No, it’s not there. Let’s, finally you and I, I think agree that in the final analysis, all of these issues, these impediments, psychological, history, religion, ideology, the sense of delegitimization, etc. That is, if we believe that sooner or later some kind of solution needs to be found, we spoke about the need for a process of reconciliation. The question that I’m thinking now, given the most recent development both in the region and elsewhere, is the process of reconciliation still viable? Does it have to be preceded by some other development first, or who is going to bring about this kind of process of reconciliation, that is people-to-people? If the governments are not willing to reconcile, then the reconciliation will have to start from the bottom up – that is, between the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. And yes, there are elements, both among the Israeli society as well as the Palestinians, who are thinking in those terms . But I don’t know if they’ve gone far enough. And this is what you and I have been trying to promote all along. That is, we need that kind of process. And we need to create it so that Israelis and the Palestinians begin to look at one another from different lenses that not all Israelis are killers and soldiers ready to shoot, and not all Palestinians are terrorists ready to kill. And for that you’re going to need also the government to support that kind of process of reconciliation. And why I see now greater difficulties is because the governments themselves, neither Israel and the Palestinian Authority, certainly not Hamas, are willing to invest in this process.
DR: I have to quote something that you wrote some time ago. I forget exactly the article, but you stated that as long as Netanyahu and Abu Mazen hold the leaderships of their respective peoples, there will be no progress in this.
ABM: I absolutely believe that.
DR: And I think that it fits with the content of these discourse that we have, because both of them are needing—although we have to add with regard to the Palestinians also the question of Hamas, which is that much more malignant to any hope of reconciliation. But both sides have political elites that they are leading, for all the reasons we’ve discussed.
ABM: Yeah. And willing.
DR: Are not going to do it.
ABM: Yeah, they are either unwilling or unable to make the kind of concessions necessary, and before making these concessions they have to prepare the public. Hence we go back to the process of reconciliation. They are not willing to take these kinds of steps in order to lead both people to begin to want to see one another. So as long as Netanyahu, I repeat that, and Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas are in power, I don’t think we’re going to see this kind of process any time soon.
DR: Certainly not reconciliation.
ABM: Yeah, no. We’re going to have to see a change a government. And two governments that begin to look at the entire conflict from a different perspective, and ask the simple question that I have saying ad nauseam, coexistence is inevitable. They have to coexist, they can kill each other for another hundred years, or they can make peace with one another, but they are stuck with one another. And this is the choice that they will have to make.
DR: Well you see, I think that we have to go back to this question. I think that hope, if any, lies in segments of both societies that are far too silent. And that is the rational, secular, modern segments of society, and the religious moderates of those societies, who are there, they are too silent. I think on the Israeli side certainly they are silent for two reasons. One is that in terms of social class, those that are more educated and have better income are enjoying the fruits of a buoyant economy which is very stabilizing both in the good and the bad sense, and those that are not, at the lower echelons of the social class spectrum, are much more easily swayed by existential anxiety as mobilized by the political elites, and keep them in power. On the Palestinian side, I’m less sure, although I do believe that a hardscrable life and a middle class that is too small, actually, is also in a sense stable. People are too busy getting bread to worry about the big picture. So there’s a silence, that’s the point.
ABM: Yeah, I agree with you, but my feeling is that this type silence or complacency is not enduring. It cannot endure forever. Something will have to give in.
DR: So here’s the question – what will wake them up?
ABM: Go back – and I’m sorry to end this discussion – go back to what I’ve said before, something will have to shake both sides. And unfortunately, the only thing that’s going to shake them, given that there is lack of leadership—visionary, courageous leadership—what’s going to happen is probably a major, massive, violent confrontation, conflagration, that is going to shake up the status quo, and the people will be awakened to search for a better solution.
DR: Maybe I’ll say with a smile, maybe if they listen to this podcast, it may do something for them.
ABM: Thank you so much, David.
DR: It’s been a great pleasure, I very much enjoyed it. Thank you Alon.
My guest today is David Rabinowitz, Director of the Mental Health Clinic at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. He has worked as a psychiatrist in charge of psychiatric outpatient services in both South Africa and Israel, and has invested in the development and teaching of professional skills and approaches in community mental health care.
My discussion with him today focuses on the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
My guest this week is David Schenker, Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.
Previously, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant. In that capacity, he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. He was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service in 2005.
Prior to joining the government, Mr. Schenker was a research fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Arab governance issues and a project coordinator a Bethesda-based contractor of large, centrally-funded USAID projects in Egypt and Jordan. In addition, he authored two Institute books: Dancing with Saddam: The Strategic Tango of Jordanian-Iraqi Relations (copublished with Lexington Books, 2003) and Palestinian Democracy and Governance: An Appraisal of the Legislative Council (2001). More recently, he published a chapter on U.S.-Lebanese relations in Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave, 2009), and Egypt’s Enduring Challenges (2011), a monograph focusing on post-Mubarak Egypt. His writings on Arab affairs have also appeared in a number of prominent scholarly journals and newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Jerusalem Post.
I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of ‘On the Issues’. My guest today is David Schenker, Director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. Previously, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant—where he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.
Alon Ben-Meir: I met with Fred [Hof] of course, just now we talked a lot about Syria, and perhaps we can talk about more regionally—Israeli-Palestinian—
David Schenker: Sure.
ABM: I want to start with the question of Jerusalem. Of course as I see it, to make such a move could be disastrous. On the one hand, in terms of what would be the reaction of the Palestinians, but even more so the Arab World. Saudi Arabia and Jordan in particular, they’ll be outraged to say the least. I had the idea, and I sort of bounced it, that if he still wants to make the move, how can we use that as a means by which to achieve even almost a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian conflict? If he were to say, we have land there—the United States purchased land in West Jerusalem on which the plan was to build an American embassy there, but of course from one administration to another, everything has been delayed and delayed—we are going to start building the embassy. And if there is progress in the peace process between the two sides, we will reserve space to allow the Palestinians to have their capital in East Jerusalem.
Suppose this would have been the approach. My feeling was that if he were to take this approach—and I passed it on to very top people, and they were really excited about the prospect in terms of, he’s basically conditioning the move on the fact, that is, we are building the embassy so the Palestinians can see movement in that direction. It is no longer just talk, but is also providing the opening. If there is progress and you move toward a peace agreement, well we will look into it, that the Palestinian capital will be still there while maintaining the unity of Jerusalem. Nothing will change. Basically what is Israeli is Israeli, including East Jerusalem. What is the Palestinians’ is the Palestinians’. The city will remain united, a single city, but it’ll have one municipality here, one municipality there, and they will find a way of course to work it out administratively and in terms of security and all of that.
From my perspective, when I used to go in the 80s and the 90s before this mess of increased terrorism, I wrote many pieces that Jerusalem represents in my view the microcosm of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. You couldn’t tell then who was an Israeli and who was a Palestinian. The people were moving from Israel to the West Bank, and back and forth. And Jerusalem was the center of peace. People actually coexisted very peacefully and to me, this is how the Israeli-Palestinian coexistence should be, is going to look like. There’s a political border, but there’s no physical border per-se. A Palestinian citizen is going to vote and be elected in Palestine, and Israelis are— But there will be intermingling work here. That’s how I saw it, that is the piece I wrote. But I didn’t publish it yet because I wanted to channel it to the right people. What’s your take on it?
DS: Well, there’s a couple of issues. I think Trump is convinced that this is something that should be done. People in Washington ask well, what can they get from Israel for this. Because traditionally if you get a big gift from the United States, something like this, there would be a request on the backside from Israel, but there hasn’t been anything. Now I don’t necessarily think that you have to. I mean, what you’re proposing in a way is changing the status quo, right. There’s no change in the status quo by moving the U.S. embassy to West Jerusalem. Right? Even Arafat recognized that West Jerusalem was going to be part of Israel, right. This was never—
ABM: This is true, but more symbolically, moving the embassy anywhere in Jerusalem for them represents recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
DS: Well, there’s an issue of perception. Of course the U.S. consul general, which is the highest representation, is in East Jerusalem, right? So let’s put that aside for a second. I think that if you wanted to ask the Israelis for something, you could potentially. I don’t think you’re going to get from this government in Israel a commitment that East Jerusalem will be the capital, that we’re going to deal with issues of sovereignty or division of Jerusalem. Now, most Israelis as you know would be willing to divide Israel. More Israelis anyway would be willing to divide Jerusalem and have two capitals there, than be willing to cede the Golan back to the Syrians.
ABM: I mean in every negotiation in the past, when the discussion on Jerusalem was on the table, there was an agreement in principle that Jerusalem was going to be basically a capital of two states.
DS: I think what you’d need for the Israelis to make some sort of enormous move in that regard would be some sign of good faith from the Palestinian side. Remember, we’ve been frozen now essentially since day one of the Obama administration, when the administration basically forced Netanyahu to have what was the deepest settlement freeze in the history of Israel, of a modern Likud politics. He did it, and Mahmoud Abbas said ‘hey, why the hell am I going to give Israel anything right now, I got this great settlement freeze,’ and they wasted a year. And you couldn’t twist the Israelis’ arms anymore after that point. This was a failure obviously of the Obama administration.
Now, maybe the Palestinians will be so discouraged from the Trump administration that they’ll be more willing to make their own concessions, which, maybe you can get from the Israelis another settlement freeze, maybe within the current boundaries of the settlements. No new—you can get something if the White House engages, but they’re not going to ask for anything unless you get something very serious from the Palestinians. And I think this embassy move is something that the Israelis are I think happy about – the government is happy about. But for most people, it’s probably not that big a deal.
ABM: Yeah, but it also seems at this point, I think, that the Trump administration is sort of moving back from moving the embassy.
DS: There’s going to be a process.
ABM: There’s going to be a long process, so they’re talking about the process. My feeling was that if they were to incorporate this into that kind of thinking, into that kind of process, they’re going to send a clear message to the Palestinians, hey we’re thinking about you, we believe still in a two-state solution. We can move in that direction, but you need to make yourself stop incitement, stop this, stop that. Do the kind of thing, begin infrastructure, build your real infrastructure, in order for us to make that kind of— I mean that’s where I’m coming from.
DS: The big deal for me is that you really have to work with the Jordanians on this, right. You have this Jordanian special relationship with Jerusalem that goes back to Mecca and Medina. Then you had the annexation in 1950 of the West Bank and the declared sovereignty over Jerusalem by the Jordanians. They stepped back from that in 1994, the peace agreement includes that. They still derive some of their legitimacy from their guardianship role in Jerusalem. I think you have to have the U.S. government, regardless of what happens, continue to reiterate that the Jordanian role in Jerusalem is a priority, that there’s no change in status quo of the holy spots.
ABM: There’s no doubt.
DS: But the Palestinians can be a real spoiler here, and I’m not talking about the 60 percent or more of Jordan that is of Palestinian origin. I’m talking about the Palestinian Authority deliberately trying to shake the neighbors through incitement because of this embassy move. That’s very dangerous and something that I think should be punished, frankly. The Palestinians could play a real spoiler role here, and the United States can talk to the Palestinians and make their own commitments to what they’re willing to do and what they’re willing to advocate for on behalf of the Palestinians. But if the P.A. chooses to go along with Iran, to say that this is the destruction of al-Aqsa Mosque, I mean you can imagine what they’re going to say when this happens. Then I think there has to be a pretty big penalty that’s imposed from the United States for shaking the stability of the neighbors.
ABM: Yes, this is true, but let’s leave Jerusalem for a moment. You know the whole discussion we’re trying to establish, I’ve been trying and thinking about it, talking and writing so much about it. My feeling was—and I’ve actually been very much involved with the French organizing this conference and suggested a proposal in terms—my feeling is that, I want to just hear your take on this. That is, we first need to establish whether the Palestinians in fact want a two-state solution. So there’s that in the Israeli mind, whether this is in fact what Mahmoud Abbas would like to see as the endgame. It will be a Palestinian state more or less in the West Bank with some major, certainly land swaps, etc. My position is that even if both sides agree to the principle, I don’t believe Netanyahu would like to see a Palestinian state under his watch either. But even if there is that kind of decision, that kind of commitment to a two-state solution on the part of both sides, they cannot possibly sit today and negotiate that because of the very deep distrust between the two sides, because of a very deep sense of insecurity both sides have. Both sides, not just the Israelis. The Israelis will have that because of historic experiences. But the Palestinians feel just as insecure, if not more so, than the Israelis. And then of course you have these two constituencies, both the extremists in Israel, settlers and their supporters. And then you have Hamas on the part of the Palestinians, who still envision that they are going to have all of Palestine, Israel and Palestine together.
So you have these three elements at play, and no one can actually deny that this is justified. So to be able to begin any kind of serious process, to negotiate seriously and reach some kind of an agreement, you’re going to need first a process of reconciliation. That’s up and coming. What I’ve been saying all along is that if you don’t have that kind of process of reconciliation, whereby you can mitigate questions of distrust, or at least a process of mitigating distrust, and begin to mitigate concerns over national security, stopping incitement on the part of the Palestinians, and taking measures to convince Israelis that there’s not going to be another Hamasistan in the West Bank, so to speak. And then disabuse—
DS: I mean, can you convince the Israelis there’s not going to be a Hamasistan in the West Bank?
ABM: No, what I’m saying is not the argument.
DS: That there is no Israeli occupation of the West Bank; you probably already have a Hamasistan there.
ABM: This, but I’m saying it’s only through a process. That is, you cannot discuss trust and say ‘from now on I’m going to trust you,’ that’s not going to happen. You cannot distrust security and say, ‘from now on, our security is guaranteed, your security is—‘ That’s not going to happen. That’s what I’m saying, you need a process of reconciliation for a period of time before they actually can sit down and negotiate. Now if they’re not prepared to go through that kind of process, to me it’s a clear indication that neither side is in fact willing to see the end game, which is a two-state solution. That is, if you’re not prepared to prepare the ground for what eventually needs to happen, should happen, which is two states—that’s the goal, that’s the objective. That’s what Netanyahu says. That’s what Mahmoud Abbas says. But they are taking zero action. In fact, they’re doing everything the opposite, to widen the gap rather than narrow the gap. What I’ve been saying to the French in preparation for that, I said if you do if you want to be helpful, introduce the concept of reconciliation first for two years, three years, and make sure that two sides will actually be prepared to go through that kind of process.
DS: Yeah, it’s pretty hard to get a process of reconciliation going when you have stuff like what happened in the U.N. Security Council. People come and declare the settlements, whatever they’re going to declare them, and laid the ground for more lawfare I think that while it may not be people knifing one another, I think the Israelis view this as a full-on attack by Palestinians.
ABM: Yes, but Israel invited that kind of resolution; Israel is inviting the European resistance to this whole thing. You cannot say that Israel is an innocent party here. Netanyahu is working very, very hard. I mean, his ambitions are probably just realizing what Shamir at the time was advocating. Let’s put one million Israelis – they’re coming very close to this number in the West Bank – create irreversible facts on the ground. And that’s the end, there will be de facto no Palestinian state anymore. My feeling is that if the Trump administration begins to think in those terms, rather than thinking ‘let’s get the parties to sit down and negotiate,’ whether Kushner’s involved or [unclear] involved, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere.
DS: You know, I think actually Bush had this right, which was essentially saying OK, you have settlement blocks. The Palestinians have centrally agreed to territorial swaps and you can build as many buildings and high as you want to build them, and just why does he want to build them with it as long as they remain within these current existing boundaries, right? If you want to build another room on your house, this is not building a settlement. If you want to build another floor on your apartment building going up, this is not building settlements. I think President Bush worked out this deal with Elliott Abrams, with Ariel Sharon, and they all accepted it. And that actually makes a great deal of sense. I don’t know why parties persist in saying that this is somehow a bad solution to the problem. If you’ve already agreed on territorial swaps, then what would be the problem with that and declaring these more settlements? And now these are cities in any event. We’re talking about these big blocks, tens of thousands of people.
ABM: Of course, these are cities.
DS: We can talk if you want about the hilltops and about the Israeli government in the Knesset now changing the laws in Israel about settlements and things like that. Then I think they present more problems in the international community—
ABM: Well of course.
DS: But of course the international community was never interested, no matter what Israel does it’s not going to really be quite enough, right? I mean, the fact that the UN Human Rights Commission has triple the condemnations [of Israel] last year than it had of Syria or Russia or the Assad regime, I mean it’s ludicrous.
ABM: Yeah, but what would you do? You are watching from the outside. OK. There was an agreement on land swaps in every negotiation that took place since 2000 at Camp David, there’s no doubt about it. And Israel today is claiming we are building in existing settlements, we’re not building new ones. We have merely, to accommodate natural growth in the settlement. And so the Palestinians should not be complaining, they’re not changing the geography.
ABM: The problem with the Palestinians, as Israelis all along also insisted, it’s got to be one agreement. That is, you cannot unilaterally continue to expand or build in these settlements unless it is part and parcel of a general agreement. What is it going to be the precise land swap? What’s going to take place? How contiguous is it going to be? The quality of the land—there was no real agreement on these issues. And when I talked to the Palestinians, they said we agreed to the land swaps. We understand that Israelis need to expand this for natural growth. But that’s got to be part and parcel of any agreement that we are going to have.
The problem is, and I think they raise it, and tell me what you think please. They are saying during the negotiation under the U.S. auspices with Kerry twice, Israel insisted on starting the negotiations on national security. And the Palestinians are saying, ‘well, we’re going to negotiate, let’s start with the contours of what the Palestinian state is going to look like.’ So once we establish the land swap, then even if the agreement is not totally completed, once there are the contours of the state, you can continue to build in these, once they have that kind of understanding. But Netanyahu refused to start with establishing what a Palestinian state is going to look like. There were many other issues, how the negotiation went bad. The rules of engagement were a mess as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think anything has changed. But I’d like you to tell me what you think, we cannot think in terms of the Netanyahu government or the right-of-center, and Israel is going to remain forever. I mean it’s going to change, something is going to change.
DS: What, to right-of-center? Lapid or someone like that?
ABM: Possibly center, if not right. Well, right now they are right-of-center, but let’s say center, perhaps slightly left-of-center.
ABM: Well this is the problem. I mean—
DS: I mean, that’s like saying that Congress is going to change to Democrat in two years. Right? I mean—
ABM: Well it’s possible.
DS: Well it’s possible. But if you look at the seats that are up, it looks like it’s going the other way in the Senate, et cetera. You know—
ABM: I mean, we can’t rule the possibility that the Israeli opposition comes to their senses, that one morning, Herzog and Lapid and others say look, enough is enough. We better organize ourselves. In five years, it’s going to be way too late. And let us have a united one single agenda. This is going to be our agenda, let’s campaign on this agenda, tell the Israelis the truth about the eventuality. If no peace is established with the Palestinians, where will Israel will be five, ten, fifteen years down the line?
So I’m not saying that Israel is wrong or right. What I’m saying is in terms of looking at it. If you believe in a two-state solution, you’ve got to think in those terms today, what are the steps you need to take in order to get you in that direction. When you ask Israeli officials, Bennett and others, where do you think Israel will be in five or ten years, they don’t have an answer. They really don’t know. They have an illusion, we’re going to take over the entire West Bank, but what are you going to do with the Palestinians? Are they going to disappear? What would you tell Netanyahu today about his plan? What his plan does—I’m serious, if he were to ask you.
DS: Everybody comes up, everyone’s got their, what they call here their alternative facts, but the numbers are in dispute. But if you listen to what President Obama says, or Secretary of State Kerry, that it’s not going to be able to be a democratic and Jewish state, I think there are many in Israel who would disagree with that. Based on the numbers that I’ve seen, I don’t think I’d want to be absorbing the West Bank into Israel. I think it poses a grave demographic threat. But if you want to maintain the Jewish character of the state, right? You’re already got 20 percent non-Jewish in Israel proper, within the Green Line. But maybe they’re planning on getting another million Russians. I don’t know.
ABM: No, but I’m serious, what’s your real— If you were to sit in with Netanyahu, sure you were to advise him. I’m not being facetious about it, seriously.
DS: Israelis vote based on whether they believe that they have a peace partner, right. This is why they voted for Rabin. They voted for people on the left, they voted for people on the right, but that generally has changed over time based on whether they think that Arafat was a peace partner, whether he was not a peace partner. And I don’t think any Israelis really think that Mahmoud Abbas is going to be the guy that makes that concession on the right of return. For example the quote-unquote—
ABM: No, I agree with you. I don’t think either Abbas or Netanyahu will be the leaders who will achieve an agreement.
DS: So if you’re going to take the old line, the old saw from the Clinton administration, you have to take risks for peace. And I think that many Israelis probably say, and I don’t do a great deal of work on Israel. I mean, I follow it, but I spent a lot more time in Lebanon than I do in Israel. But my sense is that many Israelis say, well they took a great risk for peace and it didn’t work out, and most of them say it was not our fault that we wanted— We signed Oslo, we gave them territory A, we wanted to give them territory B, and we just didn’t have a partner. Right? We gave them territory. They tried to [unclear], they tried to bring in weapons. They launched an intifada. And that’s sad.
ABM: Well that is an argument that is—
DS: Well, but I think a lot of, perhaps the majority of Israelis buy that.
ABM: They buy that, albeit it is not the truth in terms of how Israelis left Gaza, under what condition, with no agreement, overnight, without any security arrangement, without any economic arrangement. I mean, what do you expect? Hamas won the election. They feel they are entitled. It’s been stolen away from them. I mean, that’s how it is, that’s how the Israelis— But the Israelis swallow the narrative of a government, successive. Look what’s happening in Gaza, should we create another one in the West Bank? And we’re saying, well if you want to make a deal with the West Bank, you’re not going to withdraw overnight. It’ll take 10 years. You have to establish such a solid, strong relationship between the two sides to develop such a very strong, vested interest by both parties that peace is the only practical alternative.
DS: Kind of a three-state solution, right? Israel and the West Bank. And then you know Gaza, the land of Gaza. Yeah, poor Gazans really. I mean—
ABM: The Israelis resigned themselves to the fact that Gaza will be a state, and they will not object to that. They have no interest in Gaza, other than to keep it peaceful. And if Hamas want to have a state, let him have a state as long as they stop building tunnels and stop provoking Israel. That’s what I hear.
DS: Well, yeah, as long as a leopard changes its stripes. It’s not a leopard anymore. This is not Hamas at that point. Right?
ABM: I want to take advantage of your time a little bit because your field in Lebanon. And, what is your take, I mean Lebanon is basically two states to a great extent.
DS: They used to call it a house of many mansions.
ABM: Yeah, house of many mansions is more so. I don’t anticipate Hezbollah any time soon to regroup. We don’t know what’s going to be in Syria. And they have not gotten so deep into Syria. But at one point, where do you see this going in Lebanon? From the future of Lebanon as an entity and the future of Hezbollah, let us say they are—I want to start with the proposition, let us say they are going to come back at one point. Where that’s going to go?
DS: Listen, Hezbollah has experienced great losses in Syria. Fifteen hundred or more soldiers, militiamen being killed, but they’ve also developed new capabilities, right. The ability to move and fire, logistics, mobility, things that they didn’t have before. I mean, they were basically an ambush force in Lebanon. Now they are an expeditionary force, and they have absorbed the casualties. Many people at home in Lebanon are not happy about that. They’re going to be deployed in Syria for some time.
ABM: Exactly, yeah.
DS: But when these guys come home, the question is, what are they going to do. Well, some of them will be dispatched, deployed elsewhere by Iran. Right. These guys have been through Yemen, they’ve been through Iraq. We’ll see where they put them next right. They are now part of Iran’s Expeditionary Force that includes the Iranian-backed Shiite militias of Iraq, what they call the Afghani Fatimids, these Afghanistan Shiites who are fighting all over the region. But if they go back to Lebanon, I think these guys are unemployed, right? And not employable necessarily. They create a bit of a problem potentially for Hezbollah at home. These guys are warriors, battle hardened Hezbollahhis that were getting battle pay and status on the battlefield, and can’t read or write back at home, don’t necessarily have any prospects, employment opportunities, integration into society, and Hezbollah may not be in a position to pay for these folks, depending on what type of largesse Iran continues to provide after the operations start to wind down in Syria. Nonetheless, they are somewhat constrained.
If you remember back in 2006 when Hezbollah and Israel went to war for 34 days, Hezbollah essentially was free to operate from Lebanon, from the south. And their constituents who live in the south fled by and large to the north. They went to Beirut, they went to Dahieh, they went elsewhere in Lebanon and were taken in by the Sunnis and the Christians. And they went to Syria, where they were taken in by the Syrians. But the problem is, after helping to kill the better part of 500,000 mostly Sunni Muslims in Syria, Hezbollah is not going to be welcome in many places in Lebanon, and they can’t go to Syria. And I’m talking about the Shia. So Hezbollah can’t necessarily turn their attentions immediately to Israel. They can try and have this sort of base of operations from the Syrian Golan, but I don’t think Israel is going to buy that. I think Israel will retaliate against Hezbollah, not only in the Golan but also—
DS: —in Lebanon, for their operations, yeah, both. Syria certainly. But I think it’s something that is more serious. Israel will have no compunction to go after Hezbollah in Lebanon. So Nasrallah is not an idiot, and he has constituents, and he cares about what the Shia in Lebanon think about Hezbollah. So this is a problem. On the other hand, you have the politics of Lebanon. You now have a new president who is nominally aligned with Hezbollah, but is not as we know entirely reliable, right? [Michel] Aoun is a proven megalomaniac. We don’t know what he’ll do. I mean even Michel Suleiman, the former Lebanese president who was the head of the General Staff, head of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Hezbollah approved him and he was great for five years, or Hezbollah thought he was doing just a fine job for four or five years, and then he started to say bad things about the resistance and all of a sudden Suleiman was no good. And I think with Aoun, this guy’s a wild card, uncontrollable. We’ll see where he goes. Hezbollah’s position in the government is assured, but this is basically a hamstrung government. They can’t even decide on the new electoral law to go back to elections.
ABM: That’s right, yes.
DS: They want to do all this offshore drilling, like Israel has all of this natural gas. There’s supposedly a couple billions of dollars worth of gas and oil offshore and Lebanon, 5000 feet under the Mediterranean. But who’s going to bid on that, right? The oil prices are low. The gas prices are low right now, and it’s volatile. Hezbollah keeps on threatening, it has a history of threatening Israeli gas facilities. They can’t put up the bid on these sites on the border because Lebanon refuses to delineate its border. This may be more trouble than anybody wants. Then you add on top of that the Americans and everybody else is telling the Lebanese, ‘hey, if you want to export this, Israel’s building a pipeline to Turkey, share the pipeline with them.’ The Lebanese say ‘no, we’re at war with Israel.’ And so therefore they’re going to send the stuff back to shore. They’re going to have to build an LNG facility. They’re going to put this stuff on a boat and they’re going to price themselves out of the market and nobody’s going to bid on these gas fields. So as they say, it’s a shame for Lebanon, and poor Lebanon, right? They are so remarkable in so many ways, so entrepreneurial, such a vibrant society, and yet they have these sort of intractable problems are their own worst enemies.
ABM: Yeah. I mean also demographically, the Muslims are much larger, at least 60 percent now of Lebanon, 55 percent?
DS: More. I mean, listen, Lebanon’s last census was in 1943. So we don’t really know. But some people know, they have voter rolls, some people have to go back to their villages and vote in Lebanon and they vote based on their sect. And it’s widely believed that the Shia are something like 38 percent, the Sunni are like 35 percent now. Christians and tiny population of Druze, and different kinds of Christians. But the Christians are still a sizable percentage of the population, but they’re not believed to be any longer the majority. And Taif gives them 50 percent of the parliament and the Office of the President. The Premier is a Sunni, the speaker of the parliament. The same arrangement, except now the president’s office is weak.
ABM: Yeah, much weaker.
DS: Very weak. And he’s a symbol of the nation but he has no power, just for appointments and things like that, and appointments for ambassadors. So the Christians, they can vote from abroad, but they still play an enormous role in the state. And they’re trying to have a new electoral law which some of the Shiites want, Hezbollah wants to change it so that it’s proportionality, right? They’re going to sort of reopen the can of worms on this Taif accord. But—
ABM: But it will be dominantly Muslim.
DS: Well, it’s dominantly Muslim in a way right now, because even though 60 of those seats in parliament out of the 120 are Christian, the vast majority of them are elected by Sunnis. 30 of them, 30 of those seats are elected by Sunnis, or Shiites.
ABM: But the question is, will they accept it? I mean, whether Hezbollah and the Sunnis would accept that kind of political arrangement, for how much longer will they go along with it? How do you see it?
DS: Well, listen I think that some people are pushing to reopen Taif, change the electoral law. I mean, the electoral law I think is genuinely bad, it’s the remnants of the Syrians, that intentionally sought to weaken the Christians in Lebanon. They can make some minor changes. I’m not sure they’re going to get consensus on this. Not the least reason why is because people like Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader of Lebanon, if they went to strict proportionality he would lose seats in parliament, etc., and lose his own sort of political key, swing vote in the parliament. So I’m not sure he’d be willing to accept that either. But I think there’s a general trepidation about reopening this, right? You’ve not had surprisingly, right, even though Hezbollah has helped kill all these Sunni Muslims next door, Lebanon’s been pretty quiet too.
ABM: Very surprising.
DS: Two years ago, you had nineteen attacks, suicide bombs, car bombs, things like that. But you haven’t really had anything over the past year and a half.
ABM: To what do you attribute that?
DS: Well, a couple of things. One is that you’ve had the Sunni Minister of Interior, Nouhad Machnouk, has been in close cooperation with Hezbollah. You have the United States that is providing not only intelligence but $100 to $150 million a year to the Lebanese armed forces and intelligence sharing with the Lebanese armed forces, and they’re sharing it with Hezbollah in turn. Right. They have an effective security apparatus at home, and everybody’s cooperating to fight Sunni extremism. Now in the long run, I think the Sunnis in Lebanon are going to get bent out of shape about this arrangement. You have the poorest people in Lebanon is also one of these sort of old things that oh, that the Shia are the downtrodden. This is back in the days of Musa Sadr. Not anymore. The Shia are doing quite fine thank you. Go up north in Lebanon, to Sunni areas north of Tripoli. Fifty percent of the homes don’t have indoor plumbing.
I was up there on the border in Wadi Khaled on the Syrian border, saw all these Syrian refugees, and these refugees are destitute, right. They get $125 a month if they’re lucky for a family of 10, from the United Nations, almost nothing. And then you go visit a Lebanese family up there and they’re saying, ‘hey, how come these refugees are getting so much and I’m getting nothing.’ These guys don’t have running water. Nobody in the family is employed. It’s awful. So it’s really the Sunnis that are in the worse shape. Sooner or later I think they’re going to get annoyed about getting pushed around by the Shia, by Hezbollah. But we’ve only seen small pockets of that. And everybody has agreed that the big enemy are the Takfiris, right? They bought the Hezbollah line. Personally, Sunni extremists are a problem, but so are Shiite extremists. And I think Lebanon’s a state that can’t do anything about that. Part of the problem there is that for the past eight years, the Obama administration didn’t have a Lebanon policy. Right, they had no goals, no focus, no attention, the sole element of U.S. policy in Lebanon was, well let’s say two. One is we’re going to give the LAF, the Lebanese Armed Forces, $100, $150 million a year, buy them some weapons, give them some money for the Internal Security Forces’ domestic counterterrorism mission. And the other thing is that we’re going to do some financial sanctions against Hezbollah. Other than that there was no Lebanon policy, and I think it was a real wasted period of time, because in 2009 the Lebanese went to the ballot boxes and they voted in the pro-West parliament. The good guys beat Hezbollah, and we didn’t do anything.
ABM: I don’t think the Trump administration’s going to do any different. Do you think they’re going to change any policy towards Lebanon? Do they have the time at this juncture to even think about Lebanon for that matter?
DS: Well, let’s see. You know, if you listen to what people like [Secretary of Defense] Mattis has been saying, that we’re going to have to push back against Iran in the region about its regional destabilization, about its sort of predatory foreign policy, part of that will be to not only militarily take some actions in places like the Gulf, when the Iranian fast boats harass U.S. destroyers and things like that, but there’s other steps political steps, other types of ways we can push back against Iran. One of those places that traditionally the Bush administration certainly competed with the Iranians was in Lebanon. And I think it was productive to do so. We didn’t win, but we participated in the battle of ideas, and I think that there will be some in the Trump administration that want to do this. I mean, you just got Joel Rayburn appointed director of the NSC. He’s interested in Lebanon—I don’t know what he’s going to do, but he’s a smart guy, a former Colonel who’s done a lot of work on Lebanon, among other issues. So maybe they’ll engage on this. I hope so.
ABM: Yeah well we’ll see. We’ll see what is going to happen. Thank you so much.
DS: Oh my pleasure.
ABM: Thank you so much.
My latest guest is Dr. Daniel Bar-Tal, Professor Emeritus at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University.
Dr. Bar-Tal received his graduate training in social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and completed his doctoral thesis in 1974. He previously served as a Director of the Walter Lebach Research Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence through Education, Tel Aviv University and as President of the International Society of Political Psychology, and was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Palestine Israel Journal. He has won numerous awards, including the Alexander George Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, Nevitt Sanford Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, and Morton Deutsch Conflict Resolution Award of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He was awarded the Golestan Fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2000-2001, and in 2013 received honorary membership in the Polish Society of Social Psychology.
Since the early eighties his interest has shifted to political psychology and the study of the socio-psychological foundations of intractable conflicts and peace building, including reconciliation. In the latter area, he studied the evolvement of the socio-psychological infrastructure in times of intractable conflict that consists of shared societal beliefs of ethos of conflict, collective memory, and emotional collective orientations. He also studied socio-psychological barriers to peacemaking and ways to overcome them, and acquisition of the conflict repertoire by children and adolescents.
Within this scope of studies he developed with his collaborators theoretical frameworks for concepts like siege mentality, intractable conflict, delegitimization, collective victimhood, socio-psychological infrastructure, culture of conflict, effects of lasting occupation, barriers to peace making, construction and struggle over conflict supporting narratives, acquisition of intergroup psychological repertoire, early development of the ethos of conflict, transitional context, collective identity, and peace education, among many others.
The work in these areas has resulted in books, Group Beliefs (1990), Shared Beliefs in a Society (2000), Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish Society (2005), Living with the conflict (2007), and Intractable conflicts: Socio-psychological foundations and dynamics (2013). He co-edited a wide variety of volumes, and in addition has published over two hundred articles and chapters in major journals, books and encyclopedias.
Of special importance in his professional life is founding and leading a “learning community” of 10-15 graduate (mostly doctoral) students, who come from different disciplines and universities, to carry their studies about conflict and their resolution. The learning community serves as a framework for learning, reflecting, debating, and developing; carrying conceptual and empirical studies; socialization for academic career and societal involvement; and for social support.
Through the years he has lectured widely on his work, and worked as Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt University, Brandeis University, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, University of Muenster, University of Maryland College Park, Polish Academy of Science, University of Palermo, and Australian National University.
He retired in 2015 and decided to devote his second career to political activism. He founded a peace movement Save Israel-Stop the Occupation with the goal to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and establish the Palestinian state. SISO’s website can be found here: www.siso.org.il/
My latest guest is Dr. Daniel Bar-Tal, Professor Emeritus at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University.
Dr. Bar-Tal received his graduate training in social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and completed his doctoral thesis in 1974. He previously served as a Director of the Walter Lebach Research Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence through Education, Tel Aviv University and as President of the International Society of Political Psychology, and was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Palestine Israel Journal. He has won numerous awards, including the Alexander George Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, Nevitt Sanford Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, and Morton Deutsch Conflict Resolution Award of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He was awarded the Golestan Fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2000-2001, and in 2013 received honorary membership in the Polish Society of Social Psychology.
Since the early eighties his interest has shifted to political psychology and the study of the socio-psychological foundations of intractable conflicts and peace building, including reconciliation. In the latter area, he studied the evolvement of the socio-psychological infrastructure in times of intractable conflict that consists of shared societal beliefs of ethos of conflict, collective memory, and emotional collective orientations. He also studied socio-psychological barriers to peacemaking and ways to overcome them, and acquisition of the conflict repertoire by children and adolescents.
Within this scope of studies he developed with his collaborators theoretical frameworks for concepts like siege mentality, intractable conflict, delegitimization, collective victimhood, socio-psychological infrastructure, culture of conflict, effects of lasting occupation, barriers to peace making, construction and struggle over conflict supporting narratives, acquisition of intergroup psychological repertoire, early development of the ethos of conflict, transitional context, collective identity, and peace education, among many others.
The work in these areas has resulted in books, Group Beliefs (1990), Shared Beliefs in a Society (2000), Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish Society (2005), Living with the conflict (2007), and Intractable conflicts: Socio-psychological foundations and dynamics (2013). He co-edited a wide variety of volumes, and in addition has published over two hundred articles and chapters in major journals, books and encyclopedias.
Of special importance in his professional life is founding and leading a “learning community” of 10-15 graduate (mostly doctoral) students, who come from different disciplines and universities, to carry their studies about conflict and their resolution. The learning community serves as a framework for learning, reflecting, debating, and developing; carrying conceptual and empirical studies; socialization for academic career and societal involvement; and for social support.
Through the years he has lectured widely on his work, and worked as Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt University, Brandeis University, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, University of Muenster, University of Maryland College Park, Polish Academy of Science, University of Palermo, and Australian National University.
He retired in 2015 and decided to devote his second career to political activism. He founded a peace movement Save Israel-Stop the Occupation with the goal to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and establish the Palestinian state. SISO’s website can be found here: www.siso.org.il/
My guest today is Ajmal Khan Zazai, tribal leader and Paramount Chief of Paktia Province in Afghanistan. As a tribal leader, he works to bring an end to insurgency and corruption in Afghanistan, and support a process to bring peace, stability, and prosperity to all Afghans.
Born Aug 25th, 1968 in Kabul, Afghanistan, Khan attended primary school in Kabul until emigrating to Pakistan in 1980 due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While studying at Sidiq-i-Akbar High School in Peshawar, Khan continually crossed the border between 1984 and 1986 into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet army. From 1986 till 1989, he worked for the NGO Afghan Health and Social Assistants (based in Peshawar) as Assistant Director for Public Relations.
In an ambush in 1989, he survived an attempt on his life by extremist elements and was forced to immigrate to Canada. From 1990 till 1993, he studied microcomputer management at the Herzing Institute Toronto, and returned to Paktia province in 1995. From 1996 till 1998, he worked with his father Raiss Afzal Khan Zazai, who was the head of the United Tribes front, in organizing Afghan tribes to revolt against the Taliban regime in Paktia. The attempt was unsuccessful, and some prominent tribal leaders were killed by the Taliban, including his father in 2000.
In 2004, the Zazi tribes appointed Khan as the chief of the Zazi tribes.
He continued with the vision of his late father by uniting the Afghan tribes into the United Afghan Tribes Jirga and continued to unite the tribes within Paktia and across Afghanistan. In 2008, he was elected as the paramount chief of all the tribes in Paktia province. From 2008 till 2012, he channeled over $20 million US into community development projects through the Central Asia Development Group by building retaining walls, water canals, dams, girls’ schools, and bridges and roads in Paktia. These efforts provided employment for over 46,000 people.
In 2009, Khan received a fellowship degree in the Silk Road studies program at SAIS (sponsored by the Rumsfeld Foundation) in Washington, DC. In 2010, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree for services provided in the implementation of democracy and the rule of law in London, and was given a honorary degree as well for numerous lectures given in the United Kingdom.
His vision is to unite the Afghan Tribes in order to bring an end to insurgency, corruption, and warlordism in Afghanistan, and support a process which could bring peace, stability, and prosperity to all Afghans.
My guest for this episode is Carne Ross, Executive Director of Independent Diplomat, which he founded in 2004.
During a fifteen year diplomatic career for the United Kingdom, he served as political officer in the British embassies in Bonn, Oslo, and Kabul, and was Head of the Middle East Section and Deputy Head of Political Section at the UK Mission to the United Nations.
In this episode, we discuss a number of topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian civil war, and Independent Diplomat’s work with Somaliland, the Marshall Islands, and the Syrian opposition. For more information about Mr. Ross and Independent Diplomat’s work, please visit their website: independentdiplomat.org/.
My guest for this episode is Andrew J. Tabler, the Martin J. Gross Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, where he focuses on Syria and US policy in the Levant.
Mr. Tabler achieved unparalleled long-term access to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. During fourteen years of residence in the Middle East, Mr. Tabler served as co-founder and editor-in-chief of Syria Today, Syria’s first private-sector English-language magazine; as a consultant on U.S.-Syria relations for the International Crisis Group (2008); and as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs (2005-2007), writing on Syrian, Lebanese, and Middle Eastern affairs. Following his graduate work in Cairo, Egypt, Mr. Tabler held editorships with the Middle East Times and Cairo Times, where he focused on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, before becoming senior editor and director of editorial for the Oxford Business Group (OBG). In 2001, Mr. Tabler personally oversaw with OBG the first comprehensive English-language report on Syria in more than thirty years. Mr. Tabler has lived, worked and studied extensively in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.
Mr. Tabler has interviewed Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, the late Israeli president Shimon Peres, the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, slain Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and former Lebanese prime ministers Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri. His articles and opinion pieces on Middle East affairs and U.S. foreign policy have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs. He has also appeared in interviews with CNN, NBC, CBS, PBS, NPR, and the BBC.
Mr. Tabler is author of “Syria’s Collapse and How Washington Can Stop It” (Foreign Affairs, July-August 2013) and the 2011 book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria (Lawrence Hill Books).
Plenary Session at Middle East Dialogue, March 10, 2017
My guest for this episode is Ambassador Patrick Theros. In March 2000, Ambassador Theros assumed the office of President of the US-Qatar Business Council after a 36-year career in the United States Foreign Service. Ambassador Theros joined the Foreign Service in 1963 and, prior to his appointment as Ambassador to the State of Qatar, served in a variety of positions including Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political Officer in Amman; and Charge d’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic and Commercial Counselor in Damascus.
During these periods he earned four Superior Honor Awards. In 1990 he was accorded the personal rank of Minister Counselor. In 1992 he received both the President’s Meritorious Service Award for career officials and the Secretary of Defense Medal for Meritorious Civilian Service. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem honored Ambassador Theros with the honor of Knight Commander Order of the Holy Sepulcher. In 1999 His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah Al-Thani awarded Ambassador Theros Qatar’s Order of Merit.
Immediately before his appointment to Qatar in 1995, Ambassador Theros served as Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, responsible for the coordination of all U.S. Government counterterrorism activities outside the United States. He speaks Spanish, Arabic and Greek fluently.
In addition to his duties as President of the US-Qatar Business Council, Ambassador Theros has the following affiliations:
Member of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council (elected 2010)
Council of Foreign Relations, Member
Representative to USA of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem,
Arab American Bankers Association of America, Member
Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs, Member
American Academy of Diplomacy, Member
Ambassador Theros was born in 1941 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and attended public schools in Michigan, Ohio and the District of Columbia. He graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1963 and has done advanced studies at the American University in Washington, D.C., the Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, Nicaragua, the Armed Forces Staff College at Norfolk, Virginia, and the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
My latest guest for ‘On the Issues’ is Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a specialist on Syria. Prior to becoming director, he was a resident senior fellow with the Center.
On March 28, 2012 President Obama conferred on Hof the rank of ambassador in connection with his new duties as special adviser for transition in Syria. Hof was previously the special coordinator for regional affairs in the US Department of State’s Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, where he advised Special Envoy George Mitchell on the full range of Arab-Israeli peace issues falling under his purview and focusing on Syria-Israel and Israel-Lebanon matters. He joined the State Department in 2009 after serving as the president and CEO of AALC, limited company, an international business consulting and project finance firm formerly known as Armitage Associates LC.
Hof’s professional life has focused largely on the Middle East. In 2001 he directed the Jerusalem field operations of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee headed by former US Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and was the lead drafter of the Committee’s 2001 report. In 1983, as a US Army officer, he helped draft the “Long Commission” report, which investigated the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine headquarters at Beirut International Airport. Both reports drew considerable international praise for fairness and integrity.
A 1969 graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Hof began his professional career as an Army officer. He is a Vietnam veteran and served as a US Army Middle East Foreign Area Officer, studying Arabic at the Foreign Service Institute in Tunisia and receiving a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. He served as US Army attaché in Beirut, Lebanon and later in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as director for Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestinian Affairs.
Hof has written extensively on Arab-Israeli issues. He is the author of Galilee Divided: The Israel-Lebanon Frontier, 1916-1984 (Westview Press, 1985); Line of Battle, Border of Peace? The Line of June 4, 1967 (Middle East Insight, 1999); and Beyond the Boundary: Lebanon, Israel and the Challenge of Change (Middle East Insight, 2000). He has also written many articles on Jordan Valley water issues. His writing on the Israel-Syria, Israel-Lebanon, and (by virtue of his work on the “Mitchell Committee”) Israel-Palestinian tracks of the Middle East peace process has contributed positively to the body of literature promoting Arab-Israeli peace.
His awards include the Purple Heart, the Department of State Superior Honor Award, the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Medal, and the Defense Superior Service Medal. He resides in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife, Brenda.
Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Fred Hof, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafiq Hariri Center for the Middle East, who specializes in Syria. In March 2012, President Obama conferred on him the rank of Ambassador in connection with his new duties as Special Advisor for transition in Syria. He was previously special coordinator for Regional Affairs in the United States Department of State’s Office of the Special Envoy for the Middle East. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.
You’ve been so much involved, directly with the Syrian situation, the civil war in Syria, and most recently, as of course you know, there’s negotiations going on sponsored by Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Where do you think this is going to go, even if they consolidate the ceasefire they’ve been talking about?
Fred Hof: I think Alon, the best thing that can come out of this conference would be the consolidation of some kind of reduction of violence, cessation of hostilities, even a formal ceasefire. This would mitigate the ongoing humanitarian outrage that is happening in northwestern Syria. This is obviously of great importance to Turkey, which is already hosting 2.7 million refugees or something like that. I think it’s important to the Russians because what the Russians I think want to do at this stage is consolidate the diplomatic results of their very successful military intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad.
You know, when they first came in, President Barack Obama gave them some Dutch uncle advice about, don’t get yourself trapped in a quagmire.
FH: OK? And I think Putin knows his client Assad well enough to know that if he tries to help Assad reconquer all of Syria meter by meter, this is going to take years, it’s going to take billions and billions and billions of rubles, and I think what Putin would probably prefer at this point is a diplomatic settlement that more or less recognizes that Assad will be around for awhile.
ABM: But yeah, perhaps for a transitional period of at least two to three years. I mean, it’s possible. My concern is not – the issue really that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Let’s say there is a ceasefire between the rebels and the government. But then you have scores of other extremist groups who are operating throughout Syria. And when we talk about some kind of political solution, what sort of a solution is Bashar Assad going to accept when in fact the Sunnis are still a majority in Syria? The Alawites are still a minority in Syria, the Christians already decided they don’t want to have anything to do with the central government, and they’re trying to consolidate their enclave along the line of what the Iraqi Kurds have done. So where is this going to? Even if you consolidate the ceasefire, they cannot control the other groups that are fighting one another, and against the government, not to speak of ISIS. I’m assuming that ISIS sooner or later will be defeated.
FH: Yes. I think that’s a good assumption.
ABM: Yeah, I think that’s what’s going to happen. But then what are you going to do with these other groups that have a vested interest to continue to aggravate the situation in Syria, because they have their own stakes as well.
FH: Yeah, yeah.
ABM: And no one controls them.
FH: Yeah. This is going to be a very long and complicated process, Alon, even if everything goes well.
ABM: Yeah, of course.
FH: Even if there’s a modicum of good faith on the part of various parties, it’s still going to take a long time. And I think the only way to go about this sanely is to take it step-by-step. The main challenge the Russians face right now in trying to consolidate a ceasefire is that their client, Bashar al-Assad, is not particularly interested in that course of action. So far he has been riding the Russians and Iranians to one victory after another. He would like to stretch this out indefinitely until he, Bashar al-Assad, is in charge of all of Syria, along the lines of the way he was in charge in March 2011, before things fell apart.
ABM: But don’t you think this is an illusion on his part? I mean, does he really believe that he can actually achieve that?
FH: It’s possible that he does believe it, Alon. To understand Bashar al-Assad, I think the beginning of wisdom is to understand that he resides at the center of the universe. That everything revolves around him. That Russia and Iran need him even more than he needs them.
ABM: Well this is true, he believes that, and for good reason. Iran wants to maintain its influence, and to some extent presence in Syria almost under any circumstances; they will not relinquish that. Nor will the Russians. So Russia has had a naval base going back 40 years, Iran wants to maintain that crescent between the Gulf and the Mediterranean, for them Syria is a lynchpin.
FH: That’s right, and I think where they potentially differ – they don’t differ right now because each side for its own reasons wants to keep Bashar al-Assad in power.
ABM: To serve their interest.
FH: To serve their interest. From the Iranian point of view, keeping Bashar in power indefinitely is obviously very, very, very, very important. Because what does Bashar do for them? He provides Hezbollah in Lebanon with a secure hinterland, with a real backup. Bashar al-Assad does anything Iran wants him to do with respect to Hezbollah. The Iranians are smart enough, they know Syria well enough to know that there is no constituency for this kind of subordinate relationship beyond Bashar and the family. So their interest in Bashar al-Assad is permanent. The question I ask myself is, is the Russian interest permanent? And I’m not so sure. On the one hand, Bashar al-Assad does provide a service to Vladimir Putin, he enables Putin to turn to his domestic audience and say, ‘look, I have defeated American regime change in Syria, we are back as a great power, so please my friends, pay no attention to that failing economy. Pay no attention to the corruption of your government, we’re back as a great power.’ And with Assad being the face, the personification of the state that has been saved, it’s obvious that Vladimir Putin does not want Bashar al-Assad to go anywhere in the next 20 minutes. But beyond that, if you’re going to have an expanded naval base, if you’re going to have an air base in Syria, what do you do about a platform that is so weak, that will never recover, that will never attract significant funding for reconstruction as long as Bashar al-Assad and his entourage exercise executive power? The Russians know this guy, and they know the family. They know how corrupt it is. They know how incompetent it is. So if the Russians are going to keep Bashar al-Assad in power indefinitely, they have to weigh the fact that Syria will continue down the path of a totally failed state. And is a failed state really the place where you want to have military bases?
ABM: Yeah, but this is the point. They cannot possibly, in my view, count on Bashar Assad to stay there so-called indefinitely. How can he possibly be there indefinitely? That is, if the ceasefire is to be followed by serious political negotiations to reach some kind of an agreement, there’s no question at least – please correct me if you think I’m wrong on this – the rebels are not going to agree that Bashar al-Assad remains in power indefinitely. They’ll have to agree on some kind of a political solution. He may be there for a transitional period, for four years, or go to elections maybe once or twice, but he’s going to have to go at one point or another. Do you think the rebels will ever accept a solution that’s going to keep him permanently?
FH: No, they will not accept such a solution, but look at it from the point of view of Bashar al-Assad, ok? Why should I, Bashar al-Assad, care one way or the other, what the rebels will accept or not accept? I have won a military victory that has sustained me in power, that has rolled back a very serious challenge to my tenure as president of the Syrian Arab Republic. If I can keep the Russians and the Iranians engaged against the rebels, I have a chance of having it all. Right now, I’m in the driver’s seat, why should I give up anything to these people?
ABM: Well, this is exactly the point. That is, are the Russians and the Iranians prepared to continue to invest this much time, energy, money, resources, military, everything, indefinitely? They want to have some kind of a solution that can consolidate their position in Syria, and somewhere along the line get out of this mess.
FH: I think it’s clear Alon that the Russians want to move in that direction, and the Russians recognize at least in an academic sense that there has to be some kind of power-sharing so that there can be a respectable-enough government in Syria to attract the international financial institutions, the major countries of the west, Japan and others, to put money into the country for reconstruction. I think the Russians get that. You know, they may embark on a strategy of trying to move Assad into more of a ceremonial position, so that actually skilled people, technicians, can run a central Syrian government. I have no doubt that Assad will push back against that. He will oppose it. If you have a mafia-style organization, mafias are really not into power-sharing, much less giving up power. This would be an unnatural act for Bashar al-Assad and his entourage to do this, so who becomes a key character here? This would be Iran, ok. And Iran, from my perspective, really does want Assad. For them, Assad is the genuine article, he is the only Syrian who can really be relied upon to deliver with respect to Hezbollah. And for Iran, Hezbollah is everything. Hezbollah is its long arm of penetration into the Arab world. Lebanon is kept under domination and you’ve got a permanent threat to Israel.
ABM: This is true, they want him to stay for as long as possible, that means they’ll have to continue to support him for as long as they want him to be in power.
ABM: Now when we talk about some kind of sharing, creating some kind of government where there’s representative of — who this government’s going to represent. So let’s say you have an agreement between the rebels and the government. What happened to the other major minority groups, like the Christians, like the Kurds, and others, and so who is going to represent whom? In what kind of representation, power-sharing, you can actually envision, where these people – I mean if you talk about power-sharing, the Christians say, well we want to be part of that. The Kurds, even though they are trying to consolidate their own enclave, they may still not want to be left out completely; after all they need some kind of resources to maintain their strength and presence. So who is going to share that kind of power, under what kind of an arrangement, specifically if we’re talking about some kind of proportionate representation of the population. What other group, other than the rebels? And do the rebels in fact represent the Sunni community, all of it? That’s the problem I see.
FH: Yeah, the armed Syrian rebels are predominantly and indeed overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. The broader Syrian opposition, the unarmed Syrian opposition, has representatives of all of the sectarian groups, plus Kurds, in it. I mean, there are Alawites, there are Christians, Sunnis, and Kurds involved.
ABM: And Druze.
FH: One way to go about this would be consistent with what the permanent 5 members of the Security Council agreed in Geneva in June 2012. And that is that at Geneva, under the auspices of the United Nations, the Syrian government, and a delegation representing the opposition, would create on the basis of mutual consent, a transitional governing body, ok? In effect a national unity government, that would run Syria for an agreed period of time. That would work on restoring stability, getting the United Nations humanitarian aid in everywhere, begin reconstruction, write a constitution, et cetera, et cetera. Again, mutual veto as to who’s on it. One way to accommodate the Russians, perhaps, would be to exclude the Syrian presidency from this arrangement.
ABM: Only if it is ceremonial.
FH: Yes, and it would be basically ceremonial in nature. Full executive power in accordance with the 2012 Geneva final communique would be exercised by this transitional governing body, which would probably consist of current members of the Syrian government to include some people in the security services who are not necessarily suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity, some of the more prominent opposition leaders. This could be done, and the merit of doing it this way is it’s fully in accordance with what the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China agreed in 2012. It’s not going to be pretty, it’s not going to be a pristine process.
ABM: It’s impossible, I mean, in my view, it’s extremely difficult to get to this point, because let us say you have a representative government. Again, I want to go to the point, is it going to be proportionate. Will the Sunnis have a single vote, or two, equal to everybody else? How do you get a representative government, transitional government that is going to satisfy the groups, one of which is a complete majority in all of Syria, and the others are small minorities? What sort of representative government can you put together?
FH: I think Alon, as a general matter – and look, there’s a wide variety of opinion within Syria. But as a general matter, Syrians remain very nationalistic, notwithstanding the efforts of Bashar al-Assad to turn this into a sectarian battle. Most Syrians still resist having sectarian identification at the top of the way they identify themselves politically. They are Syrians first. I think that the manner in which a transitional governing body performs will mean a lot more to Syrians than the sectarian identity or the relative shares. To sum it up, I do not think there is much sentiment in Syria in favor of a Lebanese-type solution.
ABM: No, I agree with you, but just [unclear] of course, you know, after all, the Syrians have been living under the Assad regime now going for 45, 46, 47 years.
Since Hafez al-Assad. And then there were demonstrations took place 6 years ago and were met with force, so notwithstanding – and I agree with you, there is that nationalistic tendency. And so do the Iraqis to great extent, have the same kind of tendency, some kind of – they’re nationalist. But here again, you have outside powers who are going to do whatever it takes to secure their position in Syria, for the very reason you mentioned – Iran because of Hezbollah and [unclear] and Assad because he wants to have a presence in the Middle East, and Syria is a wonderful place to be, and he’s been there for some time. So these powers are going to have to be also satisfied in what sort of transitional government you’re going to have so that it will continue to serve their interest as well. So here where there is going to be a conflict in my view between the national tendency, that is get together, work together, restore Syria as a single unit, where in fact these other powers are going to be pulling and pushing to make sure they all count, and they continue their–
FH: I suspect Alon that the central problem with respect to outside powers really does boil down to Iran. Because of all the outside powers we’re referring to, and leave aside Russian military bases, just put that to the side—Iran is the only party that really wants to have a large, permanent presence in Syria. Iran is already in the business of trying to build a Hezbollah-like structure in Syria. Just in case some time in the future the Assad family can’t hang on. They’d like to see a Syrian version of Hezbollah that is essentially a state within a state, or perhaps the only real state inside Syria. I mean, Turkey, for example, really wants to see peace and quiet in Syria. It would like to see the restoration of economic ties which had grown very, very rapidly in the years preceding the civil war. The problem the Turks have, quite aside from Syrian Kurds, is the Turks look at the Assad regime, and they just don’t see the kind of leadership that can breathe any life into Syria. From the point of view of the Turks, if the Assads are still in the picture, with actual executive power, Syria will continue to die, Syria will continue to hemorrhage human beings, and Turkey’s problems will just multiply in the years ahead. The Turks are facing the fact right now that the Russians and the Iranians have purchased Assad a military victory. The Turks are facing the fact that the United States is AWOL. They’re trying to make the best of a bad situation. But reports that Turkey is going to leave NATO and become Russia’s ally, or that Turkey is going to reconcile itself to Bashar al-Assad, I think these reports are highly exaggerated and false.
ABM: I think so, I agree with you in that regard. But you know, for Turkey, obviously they need stability. I don’t think they care who is going to rule Syria as long as there’s some kind of political stability.
FH: But political stability will require a strong measure of national reconciliation, and political stability will require reconstruction – basic infrastructure, housing stock, lines of communication, and Turkey’s conclusion is you can’t get there with Bashar al-Assad in power. Nobody in his right mind is going to invest in Syrian reconstruction as long as you’ve got this clique sitting there with its hands open, prepared to take a percentage of whatever comes into the country.
ABM: Yeah, Fred, my understanding, talking to some Turks in this area, they are supporting the cease-fire, they want to consolidate it. They want to see if they can alleviate the problem with the refugees. But they also know exactly what you said, that Turkey does not have any confidence that this is going to lead to any kind of serious reconciliation anytime in the foreseeable future. So that’s how they see it. But they want to alleviate some of the pressure.
FH: In effect, the Turks want to put a tourniquet on a gushing wound right now.
The full recovery of the patient, that’s something for the future.
ABM: Exactly, that’s what they’re saying. So that’s what Erdogan is aiming for, and he absolutely doesn’t want to see if he could help it, that Assad staying – even a transitional period of time, they don’t want to see that happening. But I’m not sure they can control that.
FH: No they can’t.
ABM: That is, they cannot control that. Because if they want a cessation of hostilities, at least between the major combatants, that is the rebels and the government, then they’re going to have to agree that Assad is going to have to be, at a minimum, a figurehead at this point.
FH: I think so, and look, I think the Russians understand this as well. The Russians understand intellectually what the problem is here. And they’ve had a lot of experience with Assad over the years. They know what they’re dealing with. The real question is whether a) they want to slide Assad into a more ceremonial role so that Syria can get on the road to recovery, and b) if that’s what they want, do they really have the leverage to make it happen? Because Assad will resist this. As I mentioned earlier, Assad is not into power-sharing, it’s not exactly second nature for him, and he’ll fall back on the Iranians, who are not interested at all in Bashar al-Assad playing the role of Syria’s Queen Elizabeth.
ABM: That’s exactly – I mean, his survival depends, really, to a great extent, on continuing support of Russia at this point, and Iran.
FH: I would say mainly Iran. Mainly Iran.
ABM: Ok, mainly Iran. So, what is going to serve Iran’s long-term interest here? You know? Keeping Assad for as long as they can. And perhaps in the interim, they can create some kind of a basis along the line of what you’re talking about, create some kind of Hezbollah group to be in Syria: should Assad eventually depart in one form or another, they have already consolidated their presence by other means.
FH: This I think is their strategy.
ABM: This to me seems to be their strategy, trying to do that. They need two, three, four, five years, maybe six years, to be able to establish that kind of presence, and then the hell with Assad.
FH: Well the Iranians have said that at a minimum, Bashar al-Assad should serve out his current term, which takes us out into I think it’s June 2021.
That hypothetically would give them enough time to build a structure in Syria that if necessary, I mean, who knows, by 2021, who knows what the relationship between Iran and Israel might be, ok? We can’t completely eliminate the possibility of a détente of some kind, in which case, Hezbollah as a military force becomes not relevant to Iran, and the whole equation changes then.
Keeping Bashar al-Assad in actual power until 2021 may not be so important to the Russians. In fact, the Russians may see several downsides to that, but it is of paramount importance to the Iranians. The Iranians need time a) to build a parallel structure in Syria that can keep them in the driver’s seat, and b) to see what is the world going to look like in 2021? Are we still going to be more or less on the edge of armed conflict with Israel? Are we still going to need Hezbollah to be pointing whatever it is, 100,000 rockets and missiles at the Jewish state, will this still be necessary? We know it’s going to be necessary for the foreseeable future, in 2021 instead, who knows?
ABM: I just want to touch on Turkey versus the Kurds in Syria. Notwithstanding everything we’ve been just talking about, Turkey has unique, different interests as to what’s going to be with the Syrian Kurds. And right now, basically they’re fighting them, for all intents and purposes. Under what circumstances could that attitude of Turkey change toward the Kurds, under any kind of scenario in terms of finding power-sharing, some kind of a permanent ceasefire, long-term ceasefire, or even forming some transitional government? Where do you see Turkey going with the Kurds, which they consider a staunch enemy as far as I know.
FH: I think there are a couple of aspects to the Turkish attitude here. First, the official Turkish belief, and I think it’s the belief of the Turkish population in general, is, yes, there are plenty of Kurds in Syria, but there’s no such thing as Syrian Kurdistan. And in a technical demographic sense, this is true. You know, unlike northern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Kurdish, the strip of land along the Turkish-Syrian border on the Syrian side is far from 100% Kurdish. There are a lot of Kurds, but there is no Kurdistan. Second, from the Turkish point of view, the dominant Kurdish political force in Syria, the YPG, is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.
ABM: PKK, that’s how they see it.
FH: Which has been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, and this is one of the great ironies. The United States is using the Syrian affiliate of the PKK to fight the ground war against ISIS in eastern Syria. So naturally, the Turks are not amused by this.
They find it quite offensive, and they’d like to see the United States get out of that business, which is understandable. But you know, in my discussions with Turks, what I say is, this is fine, what you’re saying is perfectly logical. But understand one thing – in order to defeat ISIS in Syria, an organization that is carrying out atrocities in Turkey, we need a ground force. You can’t win a military victory from 30,000 feet against a bunch of guys in jeeps and on foot. It can’t happen. So if it’s not going to be the YPG, who’s it going to be? Let’s have a discussion on who it’s going to be. This is how I perceive it.
ABM: And you’re right, and I suppose their intense hatred for the Kurds is really blinding them from seeing the reality, don’t you think?
FH: Well, to use a current expression, there could be an alternate reality here. I mean, the United States does have the option, and in fact, Alon, I think this is taking place. The United States has the option of doing a top-to-bottom strategic review of how we are pursuing the war against ISIS in eastern Syria, ok? The way we’re pursuing it, right now, has made it kind of a slow-motion war which has enabled ISIS in Raqqa to plan and execute major atrocities in Turkey and Western Europe, alright? You’ve got a predominantly Kurdish force that certainly is not interested in going block-by-block in booby trapped Raqqa to save the place. T
Their interest is in an autonomous zone along the border, so the thought is, alright, we’ve recruited a bunch of Arabs to serve with the Kurds, what we call this Syrian Democratic Force, we’ll feed them into Raqqa to save the city, as if there’s no requirement for professional soldiers or marines who are trained in urban combat. I mean, you can’t take a collection of militiamen and feed them in like that. Not only will it be bad results for them, it’ll be bad results for civilians who are caught in the place.
ABM: Exactly. I fully agree with you. Now that President Trump is talking about, joining forces with Russia, basically to focus on ISIS, to defeat ISIS sooner than later. I mean, that’s what I understand the thinking is.
FH: Well, what he said as a candidate is number 1, ISIS is his first priority. I mean, he’s even telling NATO that ISIS is our first priority. But in Syria, ISIS is the first priority, and he’s held out the possibility, he said perhaps we should support Russia and Assad in their battle against ISIS. I suspect that President Trump understands two things by now: number 1, Russia and Assad have not been fighting ISIS.
ABM: Absolutely, yeah.
FH: Except for the occasional episode of Palmyra falling and being recaptured.
ABM: When ISIS is in the way, they fight them.
FH: Yeah. I think the president of the United States understands that now, and even more importantly, I think he understands that if you get into bed with Assad and the Russians, there’s another party in that bed with you, which is Iran. And at the end of the day, an American-Russian-Assad alliance puts Iran in charge of Syria, and I don’t think this is something the Trump administration wants.
ABM: So when he’s saying we need to eliminate ISIS, so far, from the air, yes, we have made significant progress but not been–
FH: Yeah, there has been progress.
ABM: But we’re not going to defeat ISIS, exactly what you said, from the air alone. Doesn’t that mean that we need to send ground troops?
FH: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is one of the options.
ABM: But would you advise him?
FH: I would. And if I were asked, I would advise him to go in that direction, and try not to make it a 100% unilateral American initiative. Try to make this a coalition of the willing on the ground. Look, if we’re going to separate ourselves from the YPG in this battle, this is a major political victory for Turkey. This is being very forthcoming with the Turks, giving them something they really want. Ok, how about something in return? How about a couple of divisions to help secure eastern Syria once ISIS is defeated? You know, we discovered in 2003 when we went into Iraq, that post-combat stabilization really is important, it was a lesson relearned in Libya in 2011. Are we going to relearn the lesson the hard way again in 2017 in eastern Syria? We need to be prepared for the day after. Because defeating ISIS militarily is one thing, it’s absolutely essential, I have no reservations about that at all.
ABM: No, there’s no question. And we cannot do that peacefully.
FH: But filling in the vacuum that these people filled in the first place with some effective local governance, with security, with the United Nations bringing in humanitarian assistance as rapidly as possible, this all has to be part of the overall plan. And if we’re going to use American troops in there, I want to see Turks, I want to see Jordanians, it’s possible that the French, who I think were really ready to go after the Paris attack.
AMB: The French will be ready to go.
FH: Get the French in there, the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Bahrainis.
ABM: But what about Russian ground troops?
FH: I don’t think so. I don’t think the Russians are inclined to do that. And my preference would be to keep them out. Keep them out and by all means, keep the Assad regime out of eastern Syria. It’s the performance of the Assad regime that made Syria safe for ISIS and al-Qaeda in the first place. You can use Syrian civil servants who still live in eastern Syria, people who know how to turn on the electricity and pick up the garbage and teach in school, great. Great. One of the basic principles of civil affairs is use the infrastructure that’s available to you. But letting the Assad family and the entourage back into areas liberated from ISIS, this would be catastrophic and self-defeating.
ABM: Just one last thing in terms of the coalition you’re talking about. Yes, I think the United States should not be doing this single-handedly, and it can’t. At this point, even we cannot do that. That’s because there are already other forces involved. The Russians are involved, the Iranians are involved.
FH: But not in eastern Syria. In eastern Syria right now, it is simply the predominantly Kurdish force on the ground. There are Syrian army units in Deir es-Zor and in Hasakah, I think. And they are basically just sitting there. These are predominantly Sunni units that Assad put out in the middle of eastern Syria because he couldn’t trust them to fight effectively in the West.
ABM: I’m just trying to think in terms, what sort of coordination, partnership quote unquote between Russia and the United States, given that what President Trump have already said, together we can defeat ISIS, so, we’re going to have to find a formula, I’m not sure what kind of formula—
FH: Well I think probably there’s a division of labor. The United States takes the lead in killing ISIS in eastern Syria, the Russians take the lead in stabilizing the cease-fire, protecting civilians in the west, and the United States and Russia together will regenerate the Geneva peace talks.
ABM: Well, we’ll end up on the most positive note.
FH: Not easy to do with Syria.
ABM: But thank you so much.
FH: Thank you so much, Alon, it’s always a pleasure.
My guest for this episode is Steve Schlesinger, a Fellow at The Century Foundation and former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997–2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal.
In the early 1970s, he edited and published the New Democrat magazine, and after that spent four years as a staff writer at Time magazine. For twelve years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid-1990s, he worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities. He has also taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
He is the author of three books: Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations (Basics Books, 2003), for which he won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award; Bitter Fruit: The Story of the U.S. Coup in Guatemala, with Stephen Kinzer (Doubleday, 1982), cited as one of the New York Times’ “notable books” for 1982; and The New Reformers: Forces for Change in American Politics (Houghton Mifflin, 1975). He is the coeditor of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Journals: 1952–2000 (Penguin Press, 2007) and The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Random House, 2013).
A specialist on the foreign policies of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, he is a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and the New York Observer. He has appeared on CNN, Fox TV, NPR, NBC, Book TV, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, Christopher Matthews “Hardball” and Chuck Todd’s “Daily Rundown”, and other media outlets as well as in seven different documentaries on the UN and two on the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
On this episode of On the Issues, I speak with Dr. Tim Williams, a consultant who has an extensive career history that extends from community and clinical psychology to working on military coordination in humanitarian response during conflict, development of governance and economic development in a fragile economy in a post-conflict context.
His PhD research and subsequent academic work is on the topic of how professionals make ethically loaded decisions at the nexus of personal, business and professional demands and values. In addition he has researched ethical decision-making in Antarctic scientific field parties, analysed the cultural interpretation of landscape in a military occupation, and written on psychological intervention in a chronic armed conflict and natural disaster. He is experienced in both quantitative and qualitative analytic techniques and has applied these across a range of fields including humanitarian access, supply chain and trade development, ethics and development of good governance.
For six years (2010-2016) Tim worked in the Office of the Quartet Representative in Jerusalem where his work focused on bridging between the political and diplomatic sphere and practical projects and interventions with government officials from several governments and many agencies, diplomats, private sector business, civil society groups and the international development community. This role involved advising and working with the Quartet Representative (Mr Tony Blair) to use his political weight and diplomacy to further Palestinian economic development. In particular Tim worked on specific areas where financial corruption was evident in trade facilitation, utilities (water and energy) development and management, and in improving access for Palestinian rule of law officials.
Tim built on his training and experience in psychology and his extensive participation in working with many cultures and in many government structures to bring his advanced skills of interpersonal and group relations, group process and facilitation, critical rigor in data gathering, analysis and presentation of conclusions, and skills in consultation and negotiation.
Tim has worked most recently in the Middle East (Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Egypt) but also has experience in the Asia-Pacific region (Thailand, New Zealand).
My guest for this episode is General Anthony Zinni, retired four-star Marine Corps General and former commander-in-chief of the US Central Command. He also served as the US Special Envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and in missions to Pakistan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
General Zinni retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000, after a distinguished 39-year career that took him to over 70 countries in many command assignments. In his final tour of duty, from 1997 to 2000, he was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command. In his military career General Zinni earned 23 personal awards and 37 unit, service, and campaign awards.
General Zinni joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1961 and was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant in 1965, after completing his undergraduate degree in economics at Villanova University. He earned graduate degrees in international relations from Salve Regina University and in management and supervision from Central Michigan University. General Zinni has been awarded honorary doctorates from Villanova University; the College of William and Mary and the Maine Maritime Academy.
He has held academic positions that include the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. He has worked with the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva.
He was Chairman of the Board of BAE Systems Inc., and a member of the board of Dyncorp International before being appointed an executive vice president. He also served as president of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc. General Zinni is the author of two best-selling books on his military career and foreign affairs: Battle Ready and The Battle for Peace. His most recent book, Leading the Charge, was published in 2009.
I recently spoke with David Phillips, Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He has worked as a senior adviser to the United Nations Secretariat and as a foreign affairs expert and senior adviser to the U.S. Department of State. Mr. Phillips has published three books, and authored many policy reports as well as over 100 articles in leading publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, and Foreign Affairs.
For a full bio, please click here.
I recently spoke with Venera Kusari, Program Coordinator at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity at Columbia University. She facilitates collaboration with the Consortium and other institutions within Columbia University and outside to design and support projects that aim to prevent and eliminate youth and gang violence. She has extensive experience with international NGOs in the Balkans, mainly in Kosovo. She has worked on issues as diverse as disaster relief, refugees, gender equality, and minority rights in conflict and post-conflict contexts. Her research focus is in inter-ethnic and community conflict through the lens of Dynamical Systems Theory and Coordinated Management of Meaning.
I recently spoke with Karen Greenberg, Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, and a noted expert on national security, terrorism, and civil liberties. Her latest book is Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, which explores the War on Terror’s impact on justice and law in America.
Alon Ben-Meir sat down with Ambassador Ashraf El Nour, Permanent Observer of the International Organization for Migration to the United Nations. There is an audience Q&A before the event.
I recently sat down for a discussion with Ehud Eilam, former private contractor for the Israeli Ministry of Defense and an expert on Israel’s national strategy and military doctrine, to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s national security.
I recently sat down for a discussion with Florian Qehaja, Executive Director of the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, to discuss countering radicalism and violent extremism across the world.
On Wednesday, April 6, I sat in conversation with the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily, for Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir.
The discussion with Ambassador Lukman Faily centered on the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, with a principal focus on the future of Iraq. Other topics included the ongoing fight against ISIS, sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias, the prospect of full Kurdish autonomy or outright independence, the future of the Iraqi Sunnis, and how the influence of Iran shapes domestic politics in Iraq.
Lecture at QUEST Learning Community, February 10, 2016
Lecture at the Rotary Club of New York, January 28, 2016
Lecture at the Rotary Club of New York, January 13, 2016
In this latest episode of The Middle East Explained, we delve into what 2016 may bring in terms of the growing rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, prospects for the defeat of ISIS, and how a durable political solution could come about in Syria.
Dr. Ben-Meir discusses Netanyahu and Abbas’ speeches at the United Nations General Assembly in late September, as well as Russia’s increasing involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Alon Ben-Meir discusses the potential French resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Security Council, prior negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and why the Arab Peace Initiative remains critical to resolving the conflict.
Dr. Ben-Meir surveys the controversy regarding the potential demolition of the Palestinian village Susiya, and also discusses the latest developments in the Syrian crisis including Turkey’s decision to permit the US to use Turkish air bases against ISIS, the effectiveness of the US-run Syrian rebel training program, and Turkey’s simultaneous campaign against both ISIS and the Kurds.
Dr. Ben-Meir discusses the Iranian nuclear deal – whether the deal is good or bad, its impact on Iran and throughout the region, and the potential for a warming of relations between the US and Iran.
Dr. Ben-Meir discusses Turkey’s regional role, Erdogan’s fall from grace, and the Iran nuclear talks.
Lecture at Atlas (Antwerp, Belgium). Please note the introduction is in Dutch; the English lecture begins at 3:06.
The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that after 65 years of mutual violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved even when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. Although there are many contentious issues that must be specifically addressed, it is the psychological dimension of the conflict which directly impacts every conflicting issue and makes it increasingly intractable. To mitigate the conflict, we must first look into the elements that inform the psychological dimension and how to alleviate them as prerequisites to finding a solution.
Alon Ben-Meir discusses a host of issues including the new Israeli government, the Kurds, the future of Iraq, anti-Semitism, and Iran’s nuclear program.
Alon Ben-Meir spoke with Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Mohamed Tawfik, focusing on Egypt’s critical role in mediating between Hamas and Israel, and whether or not an opportunity was missed by not linking the donor conference for Gaza to the wider peace process. In addition, they discussed Egypt’s contribution to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State and the nature of Egypt’s political transition following the election of President Sisi.
Lecture at QUEST September 17, 2014
Alon Ben-Meir sat down with Ambassador Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council and Mona Yacoubian of the Stimson Center for a discussion on the conflict in Syria and the currently ongoing talks in Geneva.
As part of the Global Leaders conversation series, Ambassador of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the United States of America, Dr. Alia Hatoug-Bouran delivered remarks at NYU Washington, DC on December 3, 2013. The series features Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations, journalist, and author, who hosts leaders from around the world in conversations that probe critical global issues and explore the policies designed to address them. The Global Leaders series is coordinated by NYU-SCPS Center for Global Affairs.
While at NYU Washington, DC, Dr. Hatoug-Bouran addressed Jordanian efforts to assist Syrian refugees, Jordanian economic development, and the on-going Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Lecture at the Institute for Adult Jewish Studies (Long Island, NY) on November 18, 2013
As part of the Global Leaders conversation series, former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert delivered remarks at NYU Washington, DC on November 11, 2013. The series features Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations, journalist, and author, who hosts leaders from around the world in conversations that probe critical global issues and explore the policies designed to address them. The Global Leaders series is coordinated by NYU SCPS Center for Global Affairs.
Mr. Olmert’s remarks and the discussion focused on Middle East regional issues, with a primary focus on the on-going Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Mr. Olmert also addressed the continuing conflict in Syria, changing dynamics in Israeli politics, and the re-emergence of a military establishment in Egypt.
Lecture at QUEST Learning Community in New York, NY on October 16, 2013