“Sending 5000 soldiers to Syria to fight ISIS is just a drop in a bucket”

Last week TUSIAD and Bogazici University hosted a forum, under the title of ‘Islam and Violence: Is Middle East an Exception’. One of the participants was Dr. Shadi Hamid from Brookings Institution, a fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World in the Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East. (*) Dr. Hamid answered our questions despite his busy schedule.

Some tend to interpret the ongoing sectarian strife in the Middle East as “the thirty years war” of the Muslim world, which will eventually lead to a reformation process in Islam. Do you agree?

I am not a big fan of reformation analogies. I think we have to be careful about assuming that what happened in Christianity could repeat itself in Islam. Islam has already had a kind of reformation in the late 19th century. There was an Islamic modernization process led by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Mohammed Abdu. The Islamic modernists then became the Islamists: Essentially Rashid Rida was a student of Mohammed Abdu and then Rashid Rida influenced Hassan al-Banna the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. The whole project of the Islamic modernists was to reconcile pre-modern Islamic law with the modern nation state. They wanted to find a way to bring these different strains together.


So you prefer not to use reformation but consider Muslim Brotherhood as a pioneer of modernization efforts within Islam…

The point here is what we consider to be a reform project can lead to more conservative outcomes. Reform doesn’t necessarily lead to secularization and privatization of religion as it ultimately did in Europe. In Europe there was a particular process that took place for a variety of reasons. So ideally, if we want to understand the Salafis, the Salafis are also a product of the modern era. What they were essentially saying is that we want to go back to the source, similar to the Protestants in Europe. This is also a result of the decline of clerics. The clerical class became weaker in the Muslim world in the 19th and the 20th centuries and became corrupted by the state. There was a religious vacuum. So religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis were able to fill that vacuum. In Christianity, the decline of the clerics and the decline of the Catholic Church contributed to secularization. In the Muslim world, the decline of the clerics has actually contributed to the rise of Islamists, a basically lay movement which sees the clerics as illegitimate and corrupted by the state.


After this process of violence and sectarian strife, what would be the lessons learned? How will people interpret that violence?

I think at some point, after a long period of violence, people might start to realize that this is unsustainable and say we can’t do this forever. There is too much blood. There is too much killing and we have to find a way to live together. So the hope is that once the various sides fighting each other, Shias and Sunnis in particular in Iraq or in Syria become exhausted by violence, there will have to be some kind of political settlement. The sectarian strife isn’t just about sectarianism. It’s as much about distinctly political issues as well. Of course, with the Assad regime, it’s not just Sunnis hate Shias and Shias hate Sunnis. It’s the fact that you have a very repressive regime, which is represented by an Alawite minority. Sunnis have felt disenfranchised for many years if not decades.


And there is the role of external powers…

External powers which are kind of stoking this sectarian sentiment…So, there is a real theological component where some Sunnis see Shias as apostates, as non-Muslims. But at the same time, political circumstances have fueled these divides. For instance, the Iraq War had a big effect. Before the Iraq War, the Sunni-Shia divide wasn’t as prominent.


Considering the Ennahda’s decision to step down at a time of growing social unrest, did Rashid Ghannouchi’s individual character play a role in this outcome?

I think one of the advantages Ennahda has is, you have the historic founder. He is also the ideologue and intellectual of the party. So he has a lot of influence and he will continue to have a lot of influence. He has really staked his legacy on this idea of concessions and compromise and reaching out to the secular opposition. The leadership including Ghannouchi spent a lot of time convincing their base, because there has been significant discontent among Ennahda’s base about these compromises, Tthe fact that the party  seems to be losing its identity. The Ennahda leadership has had to kind of reassure people that their strategy is sound; explaining that this is the best way to protect Tunisia’s democratic transition. Ghannouchi has spent his social and political capital making those arguments and trying to keep the party together. And even people who disagree with his more moderate approach, if you will, respect him because of his historic role in the party. So this is an example of how leaders, individuals can be very important and can have an outsized effect on the direction of a party.


Charismatic leadership matters then…

But it shouldn’t be overstated. Structural factors are important. So we have to look at how structural factors intersect with the role of individuals. It’s not just that Erdogan is Islamist or authoritarian. He is also responding to major structural changes in Turkish society: the removal of the military as a veto power in Turkey and the sidelining of the EU accession process which was providing a positive incentive for reform in Turkey. You removed that, so Erdoğan and the AK Party had less reason to follow the same course. I suspect that any AK Party leader, if there were a political opening with the military sidelined, you’d see the role religion becoming more prominent in their discourse. Not as much as Erdogan has made it, but you would have seen a shift in that direction.


Social scientists have been treating Tunisia as a political experiment. Everybody wants to know why Ennahda chose to compromise instead of escalating crisis any further?

They had a choice but in some ways they didn’t have a choice. There was incredible pressure being put upon them. The secular opposition was calling for the dissolution of the elected constituent assembly and the government. And there was Egypt-style rhetoric being replicated in Tunisia. There was a group called Tunisian Tamarrod (rebellion) after Egyptian Tamarrod, there was even something called the Salvation Front taking its name from its Egyptian counterpart. Based on my own conversations with Ennahda leaders when I was in Tunisia two weeks ago, this is one of the things I kept hearing: “the Egyptian coup had an effect on us.” Things would follow a similarly dangerous path. So they had to make certain decisions to avoid that very dangerous outcome. They deserve a lot of credit for stepping down voluntarily but at the same time there was a kind of undemocratic component to it where the secular opposition was essentially threatening an Egypt style scenario. That part of it is important to kind of understand what happened in Tunisia.


Recent statements of the Muslim Brotherhood representatives point to an ongoing transformation of the movement towards embracing a more assertive and even violent political stance in the future. Can that help the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power in Egypt?


It is definitely true that the Muslim Brotherhood is adopting amore revolutionary discourse. This is one of the tensions within the Brotherhood. Historically the Brotherhood has been a gradualist organization, they were not in favor of revolution. They weren’t even comfortable with the language of revolution. Even under the Mubarak regime, they were working within the system. They had a kind of slow and steady approach. But I think for many in the organization, especially the younger members of the Brotherhood, they feel that one of the lessons of the Arab Spring and the Morsi period is that you can’t work with the state, you can’t compromise with the military. That approach failed. Now the argument is that there has to be a more revolutionary approach, that state institutions have to be fundamentally reformed at the most basic level, and even purified and purged of old regime elements.


Is that a successful strategy? Can they appeal to their political base?

So far only a small minority of Muslim Brotherhood members or supporters have adopted violent methods. So we haven’t seen a mass turn to violence yet. There is increasing an internal debate within the Brotherhood on the rank and file level about “defensive” violence. So some people say: if they see a police officer who raped their sister, should they be able to target him? It’s a more a kind of low level violence. We don’t see any serious discussion about an organized militancy or al Qaida style violence.


But we do see a couple of terrorist attacks in Egypt.

No one has been able to link the terrorist attacks to the Brotherhood. I think that’s a different thing. But the problem is that, once you start having a conversation about defensive violence, defensive violence can easily turn to offensive violence. That’s why I think there are major concerns that if this repressive situation continues that more Brotherhood supporters will move in the direction of thinking about the use of violence. But I think this is why the Brotherhood leadership feels like it is under a lot of pressure because the people on the ground inside of Egypt are more uncompromising, more aggressive, and more revolutionary so they in turn have to adopt a more confrontational discourse. That can sometimes include looking the other way if -quote un quote- defensive violence is going on.

And we have to keep in mind that many in the Brotherhood had many family members who were killed, so for them,  there is also an issue of revenge. They want these people to be punished.


Analysts agree on the fact that defeating ISIS would take a long time. Do you think offshore balancing is a viable strategy for the US to pursue in the Middle East?

I think that the US strategy against ISIS is quite lackluster. There is a big gap between means and ends. If the goal is in fact to defeat ISIS, I don’t think means meet the ends. If you actually look at what the Obama administration is doing yes, there is something of a policy in Iraq and there is some support from the local Sunni force and the central government, and some progress has been made against ISIS advances. But when we look at Syria, there is a real gap in the US strategy.


Can you elaborate more on this gap, please?

If you want to defeat ISIS, you have to have policies that are actually up to the task. But in Syria, there is no real strategy. Someone has to recapture ISIS’s territory in Syria. Who is going to do that? The so-called moderates in Syria opposition have become increasingly weakened and the US hasn’t done nearly enough to support them. So they have lost territory, battles against ISIS. ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra have expanded over the past six months in various parts of Syria,

In the whole, $500 million to train five thousand fighters: that’s a drop in the bucket. In a country where there may be a hundred thousand fighters, five thousand fighters will not have a significant impact in shifting the balance on the ground.  


And then there is the issue of allies with divergent interests…

Exactly, the countries who are allying with the US to fight ISIS have divergent interests and divergent approaches. Relying on some of the most repressive regimes in the region to fight ISIS is also problematic. If we acknowledge that harsh repression is one the factors to the rise of extremism in the region then you get stuck in this circle. You ally with repressive regimes which contribute to extremism and to fight extremism you need to work more closely with repressive regimes.


Demonization of Israel constitutes an important part of the Islamists’ rhetoric. Do you think ideological basis is derived from religious doctrines or is it more to do with the Palestine issue which is used to mobilize the masses against Israel? Or both?

I think it’s primarily a matter of politics because this is one of the few things that Islamists and non-Islamists generally agree on. Certainly in the Arab world, when you talk to Arab nationalists, Arab secularists, Arab leftists, and Arab Islamists, they all have a very clearly pronounced dislike for Israel. That’s not primarily an issue of religion. Anti-Israel rhetoric and even anti-Semitism is something you see across the political spectrum in  countries like Egypt. So that would suggest that religion is not the primary motivating factor. Yes, it may be the case that religious movements sometimes use religious discourse when talking about Israel to legitimize their arguments and to rally their base. And no doubt, with Islamists movements there is a religious component but we shouldn’t be overstating it or portray the Arab-Israeli conflict as one that is primarily about religious claims, I think it is primarily about territorial claims. But this is where it can become blurry. The political and the religious can be intertwined in the rhetoric of these groups where politics can be religious and religion can be political. So this kind of artificial distinction  between “religion” and “politics” is an oversimplication of and doesn’t necessarily reflect how Islamists themselves see the conflict.









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