The Islamist Challenge to the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe – Interview with Dr. Shmuel Bar February 9, 2016

by on January 08, 2017

The Islamist Challenge to the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe
Interview with Dr. Shmuel Bar, Senior Israeli Analyst, and Founder and CEO of Shmuel Bar Research and Consultancy Ltd
February 9, 2016


Dr. Christodoulos Pelaghias (C.P.): Good afternoon, and welcome to another ERPIC discussion. With us this afternoon we have Dr., Shmuel Bar, a Middle East expert and Ms Marta Murzanska, an Erpic Senior Fellow. Our focus this afternoon will be on regional security, and specifically Islamism on the challenge that it presents to the region and to the West. Shmuel, thank you for being with us. There so much religious intolerance in this part of the world, and yet traditionally people from different religions were living next to each other in part of the same societies in most of the countries of the Middle East. Isn’t this strange? What’s your initial comment?

Dr. Shmuel Bar (S.B.): First of all, we have to be precise historically. There was definitely no ideal world, like Woody Allen said: “the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep”. There were pogroms in the Arab world against Jews and Christians. There were forced conversions in Iraq, in Iran, in Morocco. The difference was that as long as the non-Muslims accepted the status of dhimmi, of a second-class citizens. And there was – if we are talking about the nineteenth century, up to the end of the Caliphate – there was a relationship between the caliphate and the West, which actually provided Western countries with a sort of patronage over the Jewish and Christian populations. Up to the point where France and Britain actually gave their citizenship individually to Jews and Christians in Jerusalem, and made them their citizens, and then got patronage over them. And of course, the sultan couldn’t touch them. So basically, we had the millet system, or the dhimmi system…

C.P.: But the Russians did the same.

S.B.: Exactly, so everybody was intervening. There is quite a lot of intolerance inside the basic fabric of many of these cultures. In Shiite Islam, for example, you I can’t touch a Jew or Christian, you become impure, and you have to wash yourself. You can’t eat from a plate that a Jew or Christian has touched. There are various things like that. However, the balance existed. The situation changed at certain point at the beginning of the twentieth century. But what we are naturally seeing now, though, is finally the end of First World War. In other words, the First World War ended, there was the Sykes-Picot agreement, there were secular governments which imposed some sort of discipline. It’s very similar to Yugoslavia, where Tito kept the lead over everything, and then when Yugoslavia fell apart, everything fell apart. And now we are actually at the end of that period which held all of these pressures in place.

Marta Murzanska (M.M.): The topic of our conversation today is the Islamist challenge to the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe. And I believe that before we get into the heart of our discussion, we should maybe try to explain to our audience what Islamism is? How can it be defined? Very often such terms as political Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, radical Islam, jihadism, political Islam, are used interchangeably. Is this correct?

S.B.: What’s in the name? First and foremost, I would be very careful about the political correctness of saying that this has nothing to do with Islam. We have to have some respect for our enemies. If someone says that I’m doing this because of Islam, because I believe that this is what Allah and the Prophet want from me, first of all – believe him. Know your enemy, and you will win half of the battles. Secondly, Islam by definition is political.

M.M.: So there is no distinction between Islam and Islamism?

S.B.: There is no distinction between Islam and state. In Islam they say din wa dawla, which means religion and state. Because in the original Islamic state, Mohammed was the Prophet, who gave the religious laws, and the military commander, and the political commander. The caliph was the replacement of the Prophet of Allah, and so he is supposed to be the supreme religious, and political, and military commander. So the ideal of the Islamic state cannot be a state, in which there’s a separation of church and state. Now, extending from that, the whole question is how political is a person’s worldview in context to what you have to do. In other words, it would be nice if Allah would (…..) bring the Caliphate, but what do you have to do? And this is a development of the twentieth century, beginning with various ideologues of the Islamic movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and an idea which does basically individualization of the duty of jihad. So we have to make this differentiation between various streams. A stream which is a Salafi stream, which says we have to be very pious and imitate the forefathers, may seem to be very atavistic, but they are not political. So they can be extremely fundamentalist, but not political. They can be very fundamentalist, and they can believe that they have to take things into their hands and create an Islamic state. And there can be those who say: “even before we create an Islamic state, we want to attack the infidels, and we have to defend ourselves against the infidels”, and that’s another story. So you have all of these different types.

M.M.: Would it be valid to say that Islamism is not on the fringe of the Muslim world, as it is often believed?

S.B.: Definitely it is not on the fringe, and you can see that in all the polls, for example. I think that if we say that somewhere around 60% of the population of Pakistan has a positive view of ISIS, that’s not marginal. 25% of the Muslims of France say that they would be favourable or indifferent to a member of the family joining ISIS – that’s not marginal at all. If you compare it to the level of just other people in the Western world, or in other countries in the East, like China or Japan… If you ask a Japanese: “If your family member joined an Aum Shinrikyo – which is a terrorist organization – would you be proud?” You wouldn’t have 1% of the Japanese agreed to that, right? So that’s the big difference.

M.M.: Therefore terms such as radicalism or extremism – aren’t they misleading?

S.B.: Radicalism – I really don’t know what that is, because “radical” is with reference to something.

“Extremism” is with reference to something. So let’s assume that on the norm 98% of the people in the world want to get up in the morning, to have breakfast, to feed their children, to go to work, and to get out in front of the TV in the evening, if they have a TV. So, very few of them think about: “How many infidels can I kill today?” However, the problem is not that. The problem is: what is the attitude of the majority towards those people who are violent? Do they accept them into the fabric of their consensus or not? This is the main problem. In Islam there is no firewall on the spectrum between what we call mainstream and radical.

M.M.: So the line is very blurry.

S.B.:  Exactly. If we take an example, if I am a radical Muslim and you are mainstream Muslim, and you have a nice job at an institute, and I say to you, “Is it true that jihad is one of the prime duties of Islam?” You can’t tell me, “No.” Now, “Is it true that military jihad is definitely jihad?” Well, yes. In 98% of the mentions of the jihad in the Quran and the Hadiths, it is military jihad, it doesn’t mean anything else. Then I can say, “Is it true that the Prophet Muhammad waged jihad most of his life?” Yes. “Could the Prophet Muhammad do anything wrong?” No, he was infallible. Meanwhile, we are still in the area of pure religious discourse. “Is it true that when a Muslim land is occupied by infidels, it becomes the individual duty of every Muslim to wage jihad, individual jihad, and that a woman need not ask her husband, and a child need not ask its parents, and the slave need not ask their master, all should participate in jihad?” Yes, there’s a very good Hadith which says that. “So why aren’t you coming with me to Iraq aid the Muslims in Iraq, or in Syria to fight a jihad?” You say, “I’ve got a good job, and a job security, etc.”  I would say, “So you prefer to be friends with the infidels, instead.” In other words, at no point you can say, “Wait a minute, I’m checking my book of Islam, that’s not there!”

C.P.: So you’re saying that being radical Muslim, or not, is a matter of an attitude of the person, not the ideology. In other words, you cannot classify the ideology itself as radical or non-radical. Islam is Islam, the Quran is the Quran.

S.B.: It depends how an individual implements it.

C.P.: So you are rather a practicing Muslim or not, or is that going too far?

S.B.:  No, you can be a practicing Muslim, you can even be a Salafi Muslim, and you can wear strange clothes, in our eyes, and you can do things, and you can be very careful about everything you do, and you can be totally apolitical.

C.P.: But can you be? What I mean is the Quran is a political instrument, so can you be an apolitical Muslim? In the center of that – can you be a moderate Muslim? Or what is moderation?

S.B.: Moderation means fudging it.

S.B.: Non-practicing.

C.P.: Here we have to do a distinction. You can go through the motions of doing everything, you can pray five times a day, and you can do everything, fasting and all of that. The question is whether in the course of your interpretation of Islam you decide that you have to intervene on your own in political, military etc. issues, because this is what Allah wants of you.

C.P.: Isn’t that selective?

S.B.: It’s definitely selective, but, you see, most people who were not confronted with that dialogue that I was holding with you are willing to be selective. So until the moment I proved to her that she should come with me on the jihad, she was happy to be selective. But when I come to her, and she is in cognitive dissonance.

C.P.: But that’s where the radicalization comes in. By dialogue, you show you are not being a good Muslim.

S.B.: Exactly.

C.P.: But it’s not radicalizing the person; it’s making them a better Muslim.

S.B.: its externalizing elements in the religious outlook, which are inherent, which are in Islam, and which can remain dormant, or cannot remain dormant.

C.P.: Isn’t that a bias of secular thinking? We are almost imposing these categories, because in our mind, if you are basically secular, or tolerant, you become radicalized by becoming less so.

S.B.: I don’t like the whole idea of radicalization, especially self-radicalization. I was once giving a briefing in the United States to the very senior group, people who deal with Homeland Security, and when I explained to somebody that the Quran says, “You shall not take Jews and Christians as friends, and you shall support your brother, whether he is an oppressor or is oppressed”, and then this very senior person says to me, “That’s interesting, is that in the moderate Quran as well?” In other words, it’s a matter of what you take out of it.  

C.P.: Just to understand. In the Quranic tradition, or in the Muslim tradition, there is no attempt, or process of changing or reforming the message. The message is the message, and you either accept it, or you’re an apostate. Am I putting it too harshly?

S.B.: First of all, formally in Islam the right to the self-interpretation of the Quran was abolished – it’s called “closing the gates of ijtihad”, and it was finalized somewhere around the 10th or 11th century. In other words, after that you were not allowed to do it in Sunni Islam. In Shiite Islam you are allowed, which is interesting because Shiite Islam is more latitude actually than Sunni Islam.

C.P.: It has not been under Shia new interpretations, or reinterpretations?

S.B.:  Oh yes. Ayatollahs, especially great ayatollahs really do reinterpretation, actually to the extent that Khomeinism is reinterpretation of Shiite Islam. It is revolution. Khomeini’s doctrine was not traditional Shiite doctrine, but because of that element in Shiite Islam which allows interpretation…

C.P.: Where does that come from? Is it because there is some sort of infusion of rationalism, almost? Has that got something to do with the fact that Iranians have a traditional sort of culture that includes other elements?

S.B.: No, it’s not an Iranian thing. It has to do with the status of the clergy in Shiite Islam. It has to do with that hierarchy which exists in the Shiite Islam. You have a (…..), you have a mullah, you have a Hujjat al-Islam, ayatollah, and Ayatollah Uzma, and it is a clerical hierarchy. You don’t have that in Sunni Islam.

C.P.: But where does that hierarchy come from again?

S.B.: Quite a lot of historical reasons for that.

C.P.: But has it got anything to do with the cultural element?

S.B.: To a great extent. Just think about it. Why does Protestantism not have that sort of a structure and Catholicism does?

C.P.: Well, because simply it was a reaction against Catholicism. It was a negation of the hierarchy, etc.  I think Shia was not necessarily a negation of Sunnism.

S.B.: Shia Islam was definitely a part of the… everybody was saying they rebelled against the other, but Shiite Islam was born out of a war between…

C.P.: Yes, but it was a claim to orthodoxy.

S.B.: I think there was a claim for power: who was going to be a caliph?

C.P.: That’s right.

S.B.: You see, as long as there was a caliph, and the caliph is the supreme religious authority, you don’t need a religious hierarchy. But if you don’t have a caliph, and the Imam is in hiding, you can’t become a caliph and take over the job of the Imam, because the Imam is there, he is hiding.

C.P.: This issue about the secret Imam, what is that in Shi’ism?

S.B.: That’s an old story. Basically, the idea that he is in hiding and that he will emerge…

C.P.: Why is he in hiding?

S.B.: Well, he disappeared. And he will emerge when his believers need him the most. And traditionally there was a debate whether he will emerge when his believers are in really deep trouble, and then he will emerge, or he will emerge, and his believers will take action and proof that they are worthy of his emerging. There is the concept of forcing him to come. So the doctrine in Iran is more along the lines of: we will prove that we are worthy of the Imam and he will come. But I think, you see, since radical Shiite Islam is mainly Iranian, it serves Iran, it’s a state terrorism, it’s very clear. Hezbollah is just an organ of the Iranian state, it’s the Lebanese brigades of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Sunni, whatever you want to call it, radical Islam, is an ideological movement. It’s an ideological movement, in which there is no firewall between it and mainstream Islam. So at any given point, since most of the Islamic movements, the radical Islamic movements have something what is called takfir, declaring another Muslim and non-Muslim. Now, in an Islamic doctrine there’s a saying, “Do not say ‘you are not a Muslim’ to him who says ‘assalamu alaikum’ to you, because only God can know what the real intention of the person is.” Now, what that means is that mainstream Muslims will not declare a radical, no matter how vicious and terrible he maybe, an apostate, but the radicals will. So the weapon of declaring apostasy is not in the hands of the moderates. Except “imam” John Kerry who just recently declared that ISIS are apostates. And the whole Muslim world went on, “Who are you, John Kerry, to say that ISIS is apostates?” I will give you an example. After 9/11 the Iranians said that these people of 9/11 are burning in hell. So it’s easy for them to say that because these were Sunnis. The Saudis convened a conference of about a hundred and something imams and sheiks from all over the Muslim world to discuss the question whether these people are burning in hell. They reached the conclusion they were not. Why? Because only Allah knows the intentions; a person is not expected to know the difference between good and evil. He’s expected only with good intentions to follow what he believes Allah wants of him. If they believe that Allah wants them to do this, and they believe that with good intention, then Allah will reward them for their intentions, because you can’t punish a person for something that he wasn’t able to do.

C.P.: Can you elaborate on that?  I remember hearing you say what the difference between the Judeo-Christian and the Muslim tradition was, as far as the individual’s ability or capacity to judge one’s actions.

S.B.: It has to do with number of things. One of them is the very concept of knowledge of good and evil. In the Quran, Adam didn’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so he never got it. Basically, Islam means submission. And you submit to the will of God. If you don’t have the knowledge of good and evil, then how can I expect you to choose good or evil? You must submit, and you must do what you are told is the will of Allah. Now, what that means is that this absolves the person of personal accountability. You just have to obey. If you don’t have personal accountability, then the very concept that is inherent in the Judeo-Christian tradition which gave us the Nuremberg trials for example, this very concept cannot be implemented in Islam, because what do you expect of them is to obey.

C.P.: As long as they have good intentions…

S.B.: The next problem is that as a community… The very concept of democracy is that if we put a lot of people together, who normally will choose good, because they all have something in them, because they ate from the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, then if we say statistically, they will together choose good, and that’s what democracy is based on, that’s an underlying assumption. But if we do not think that people have this capacity, then why have democracy.

C.P.: But again, it’s debate whether have the Hobbesian world, or a Lockean world. 

S.B.: I think we live in a Hobbesian world.  For example, one of the interesting Western philosophers is Heidegger. Why Heidegger? Because Heidegger actually expounded the idea that people cannot know good, and therefore they need a Führer to tell them what to do.

C.P.: But certainly Nazism has some elements which are reminiscent of what we were just talking about. Because it’s this relying, as long as you have good intentions, and you are serving the motherland, and you listen to what your Führer says, then you are off the hook, or at least you don’t have to have sleepless nights.

S.B.:  There is the structure of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah youth movements for example. We caught in south Lebanon instructions to the youth movement of Hezbollah. They looked very strange to me.  There was a question: “If your father expresses doubts about authority of the Supreme Leader, what do you do? A) Respect him because he’s your father, B) Discuss it with him, C) Report on him to your superior in the movement.” The right answer is C. I sent this to a friend of mine, who’s an expert on Nazi Germany, and I asked, “What do you think about this?” He sent me back a questionnaire from the Hitlerjugend, which was almost the same. In other words authoritarian, totalitarian movements, I don’t know whether they borrow from each other, or they very naturally converge on the same ideas. But you can actually see that. Definitely, Hassan al Banna was highly influenced by the fascist movements of the 1930s as he developed his organization. And as we see the affection towards Heidegger. I think though that what we’re talking about is even broader than that. We are talking about an ideological movement. The penchant of the West is to look for an organization. We killed bin Laden, we military attack on ISIS. In other words, we have to look at the movement, and we have to say there’s a PowerPoint presentation with boxes…. And it doesn’t work like that. We’re talking about the real ideological movement, that for reasons of political correctness we refuse to acknowledge.

C.P.: Is that the challenge of Islamism, both in the region and in a broader European sense? Is this a challenge to our concepts, and our way of thinking strategically?

S.B.:  I think the moment you do not recognize your enemy as what it is, you are tying your hands. When we are talking about wars, probably it won’t come as a surprise to anybody that there was not one tank at Midway, and there was not one ship at Kursk. In other words, the land battles fought with land weapons, and sea battles with sea weapons. A religious battle is a religious battle. Only one side sees it as a religious battle. What we are trying to do is to secularize it, and so we say, “oh it’s a matter of economy”, or for example there was the statement by the American Secretary of State that actually one of the key causes of the growth of ISIS is unemployment. In other words, there aren’t enough McDonald’s restaurants in Iraq and Syria, so people don’t have jobs chopping hamburgers, so they start chopping heads. But if you look at it that way, then you’re not going to get anywhere.

C.P.: But still there is a secular element, certainly in the struggle in Syria. I mean the involvement of some other neighboring countries, particularly Turkey. It has a secular geopolitical agenda.

S.B.: Religion doesn’t exclude geopolitical interests.

C.P.: Surely. But I am saying that there is that element, and perhaps the West focuses on that element, but can you separate it?

S. B.: Well, it has to be holistic. The flow of foreign fighters to the Islamic State isn’t geopolitical; it is religious, and it’s ideological.

C.P.: Even certain elements of a Turkish government suggest that this is perhaps time to look at a different paradigm of the region. A different paradigm. The Turkish premier even wrote a book about alternative paradigms.

S.B.: Yes. I don’t like his paradigm.

C.P.: But doesn’t that dovetail with this view, I mean the more orientalist, religious aspect? For us it is anachronistic. I think you have made another point about the anachronism, that doesn’t exist or works the opposite way in Islam.

S.B.: First of all the paradigm of the Middle East has broken. I mean, let’s be honest that Sykes-Picot is done, it’s not going to revive. We have to accept that what we now see is what I call the Humpty Dumpty states, and just as all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again, so Syria will not be a state again. And even if the Russians put in as much power as they want, in the end to hold those places that the Syrian Army has to hold, you need ground forces.

C.P.: Well the Balkanization of Syria will happen; it has actually happened already.

S.B.: Yes, it’s done.

C.P.: So the question is where those lines are going to be drawn, and again, are those lines arbitrary? There is an element of arbitration here.

S.B.: The lines are tribal.

C.P.: The Russians are thinking about this Syrian Kurdish area. That’s not entirely tribal.

S.B.: The Russians are bringing a worldview into this, and definitely it’s a strategic concept. The Russians want to have leverage over NATO, and basically what they’re saying now is: you will not fly NATO aircraft….

C.P.: It’s the no-fly zone that the US had in Iraq. So it’s a Russian version of a no-fly zone.

S.B.: Exactly. So the no-fly zone that America said that it could not impose in northern Syria, which had it imposed, the situation would have been different, because then you wouldn’t have the refugee problem. But the Americans didn’t impose it. And now the Russians are imposing a no-fly zone, but actually a no-fly zone against NATO. And what they’re saying is that even if NATO aircraft flies inside the NATO territory in Turkey in an offensive deployment, they will shoot it down. And they have the ability to shoot them down. So that’s strategic, but dovetails with the Kurdish aspirations of course, where the Kurds would have preferred to be on the side of the West, because they feel more of an affinity with the West. And actually Russia has hijacked the Kurds, and just recently Syrian Kurdistan opened their first diplomatic office in Moscow of all places, and basically what that means is that they can deny Turkey access to Syria, and they can leverage this against Turkey through the PKK, etc. And then they can trade their assistance on that with concessions in the Balkans, in the Baltic States, etc. So that’s strategic.

C.P.: Are the Russians intending to sort of curtail the Turkish influence in the Middle East? Do you see that as a specific policy? And that’s a reaction to what? To this Turkish paradigm?

S.B.: To Turkish neo-Ottomanism. 

C.P.: Is there such a thing?

S.B.: Definitely. Erdogan is espousing on the neo-Ottomanism. One of his supporters, Yusuf al-Qaradawi said that Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi is not worthy of being a Caliph. If there is anybody today worth being a Caliph, it’s Edgogan. The Russians have strategic interests in the Mediterranean. The gas is a strategic interest of Russia; they do not want a level of stability and development of gas alternatives in the eastern Mediterranean that would make Western Europe less dependent on Russian.

C.P.: Or at least that they can keep their finger on it.

S.B.:  So basically they don’t even need all of Syria. The Russians are talking about what they call “useful Syria”. “Useful Syria” is Alawistan. They need to make sure that Alawistan…

C.P.: … can stand.

S.B.: … can stand.  And therefore, it has to be mainly Alawite, which means that you have to do ethnic cleansing of the non-Alawites, which is what they are doing. Now, there is a convergence of interests of Turkey on one hand, and Syria, where the Syrians want to get rid of the Sunnis in the area of Alawistan…

C.P.: Turkey and Syria? Or Russia and Syria?

S.B.: Russia and Syria, obviously. But Turkey, because from the point of view of the Turks, once the Syrians are kicking out Sunnis in that area, now what you actually have is a very interesting collusion here. We have to understand that the flow of people to Izmir, through Turkey to Izmir … Turkey has a very powerful army. If Turkey wanted to keep people in camps on the border, and not allow them to get to the coast, they could do it. I don’t think that anybody thinks that Izmir isn’t under the control of the Turkish Navy. Now, what you see also is that the refugees get through Hezbollah lines to Tripoli, and immediately get on boats to Izmir. They don’t get from Tripoli down the land.

C.P.: So it’s not a land bridge.

S.B.: A lot of them go to Tripoli, and from there to Izmir, and immediately…

C.P.: By water.

S.B.: Yes, by water. And then immediately what you get is these smugglers, who are intimately linked to the Turkish army, and all sorts of the pieces of information that senior people in Turkish army are getting kickbacks from the smugglers. So it’s an actual business, a big business, and this big businesses is linked to the Turkish army.

C.P.: How can you explain this European attitude of allowing Turkey to shirk its responsibility, and in fact more than that, paying…

S.B.: I wouldn’t be going into analysis, but into some sort of a social-psychological analysis. The question is…

C.P.: Is this a guilt of Mrs. Merkel? The collective guilt?

S.B.: I think there’s something in the European attitude today which characterizes the European attitude of, first of all, deference towards non-European countries, the post-colonial guilt syndrome…

C.P.: But Turkey goes beyond that. It’s actually coddling Turkey. It’s a conscious desire to please Turkey. It’s beyond this sort of complex.

S.B.: Yes it is, but it’s because Europe is conducive to blackmail. What happened after the Paris attacks was blackmail. Because it isn’t a business agreement: we will give you three billion, and you will try to stem the tide the flow. And they are already not delivering the goods, and they won’t deliver it. Let’s not forget – Turkey wanted access to the European Union. The European Union did not want Turkey, and after all of the discussions of human rights and structure etc., the European Union does not want a predominantly Muslim country of seventy million people in the European Union. And Turkey knows that. And then basically what Turkey is saying to Europe, “You didn’t want us in the European Union, we are going to bring down Schengen, your pride and joy.”  And basically this is what they’re doing. “And you will pay us to mitigate these effects, as there is nothing in the agreement for the three billion that Turkey will stop importing oil from ISIS.” Why? Because Turkey says, “We are not importing oil from ISIS.” There is nothing in the agreement that says that Turkey will stop allowing foreign fighters to cross the border, because turkey says, “We’re not doing it.” So basically, it isn’t an agreement, it is charity that Europe is giving money to Turkey without any commitment on the part of Turkey. And so if the European Union doesn’t demand something from Turkey, and it’s willing to give the money without it, then why shouldn’t Turkey take it?

M.M.: Speaking about Turkey. Its support for various jihadi groups in Syria has become apparent. It used to be an open secret for a time, but now it is pretty obvious what they are doing. What is Turkey’s regional game with regard to Syria?

S.B.: First of all, there is the neo-Ottoman concept. Turkey definitely sees itself as a regional hegemony. Secondly, Turkey is committed to toppling the Syrian regime.

C.P.: That was strange, because for so long they were friends. Assad and Erdogan used to take holidays together.  So what went wrong?

S.B.: What went wrong was that, if you are aiming at projecting yourself as a an Islamic movement, an Islamic paradigm, and you want people to accept your Islamic paradigm – even though it’s very difficult for Arabs to accept non Arab paradigm because of cultural differences – then to align yourself with an Alawite regime which is killing Sunnis… When it was 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, when it’s a quarter of a million Sunnis that have been massacred by this regime, if you are not against that regime, you will completely lose your legitimacy, not only in the Arab world, but you have created an Islamic movement in Turkey, and this Islamic movement is Sunni. And for you to turn your backs on Sunnis in the end is tribalism. We have to understand that the Middle East has fallen apart, and it’s regrouping along tribal lines, and mainly the Sunni-Shiite schism. And so your position, where you are being judged whether you are Sunni or Shiite… America today is being perceived as pro-Shiite, as supporting Iranian Shiite hegemony. If you are in Saudi Arabia, or in Cairo…

C.P.: Because of Iraq.

S.B.: No, not because of Iraq. Americans helped topple down secular Sunni president Mubarak, supported the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power.

C.P.: But the Muslim Brotherhood was not Shia.

S.B.: But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was pro-Iranian. It actually expressed very pro-Iranian position. Then the Americans tried to block el-Sisi who is anti-Iranian and anti-Muslim Brotherhood. The Americans took a position on a red line regarding the use of chemical weapons, backed back from that red line, and actually gave a lifeline to Assad, which allowed him to massacre Sunnis. In Iraq there was the elections in which the Shiite pro-Saudi candidate Alawi could have been elected. The Americans put pressure to choose Maliki, who was a pro-Iranian proxy. And then they supported with weapons Maliki, who actually provoked an uprising in Anbar in order to get all of the Shiites behind him. So if you look at all of that, America looks actually very pro-Shiite. They’ve reached an agreement with Iran which is perceived by the Sunnis as enhancing Iran’s capabilities, they see how America acts towards Iran, for example allowing the Iranians to take American boats and hold them captive, and then say thank you for releasing them. So all of this looks like pro-Shiite.

M.M.: Does it look like it, or is it actually pro-Shiite?

S.B.: I think that definitely the current American administration believes that Iran is a great power, Iran is a civilization, and must be brought back into the game, into a hegemonic role in the region, which all of the rest are in the eyes of Obama an anachronistic creations of imperialism and colonialism. 

C.P.: Coming back to Turkey. What is the game plan of turkey?

S.B.: Turkey has first of all a strategic problem and strategic dilemma. Turkey knows, Erdogan knows that demography will not lie. And in twenty years Turkey will be a majority Kurdish country because of the birth rate. The Kurdish threat is the main threat for Turkey. Everything Turkey is doing relates to the Kurdish threat. So Turkey has to block a Kurdish entity, it’s more important than blocking ISIS or blocking Assad.

C.P.: Is the majority of Kurds in Turkey though pro-Kurdish independence, or is there a mainstream of Kurds in Turkey who feel Turkish?

S.B.: I’m sure that there are, but you see, all of this can change very quickly in the Middle East. The Syrian Kurds, up to the breakdown of Syria, were just begging for Syrian citizenship which was denied to them, because they were actually denied Syrian citizenship. Now things have changed and I don’t think any of them want to be the citizens of the Alawite Syria. So these things change so rapidly in the region, that if you have a strong Russian-protected PKK-organized Syrian Kurdistan, then you will have an irredentist movement inside Turkey. If the Turkish government continues to act as it does now towards the Kurds…

C.P.: …. And deny them their rights, than they might even have a legal standing for self-determination.

S.B.: They certainly have a legal standing anyway, but it will exacerbate the sense of the Kurds in Turkey that they don’t want to be part of Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan was willing years ago to be part of the federation. Today they’re not, because the federation is no longer relevant, because they don’t have a continuity with Shiite Iraq, what they have is with ISIS, so what do they need the federation for? So all of these things are in a state of flux.

M.M.: I would like to ask a question which might seem to be a little cliché, but I believe that many people do not know the answer to this question, because of what was mentioned before – there is no honest debate about Islamism in Europe and in the West in general because of this paralyzing fear of being called Islamophobic. What do Islamists really want? What do they struggle for? What do they fight for?

S.B.: In general, it is widely accepted in Islam that eventually Islam will have to be a religion of the entire world. This is a basic Islamic tenet; there is no concept of ecumenism in Islam. True, Christianity had the proselytizing period, where the idea was to bring everyone under the fold of Christianity. At one point with the Catholic Church, and certainly with others, that sort of went down into to the dustbin of history. Islamists are at the stage where it is the revealed truth; it has overridden the previous religions. There is only one truth and this truth has to be spread until the word of Allah rules the world.

M.M.: So could we actually say that what they struggle for is some sort of a new world order based on sharia?

S.B.: The other side of it is that the majority of Muslims in the world do think that sharia should rule. Even in Europe the majority of Muslims say that…

M.M.: It should become the law of the land…

S.B.:  You can’t be a believing Muslim and say that sharia is not the way you should live.

C.P.: But especially that what is happening, is that a lot of European cities are looking like a lot of Middle Eastern cities, with the segregation of different communities…

S.B.: Yes, but that is because Europeans don’t have enough respect for their own values. In other words it’s a struggle between two parties.

C.P.: But what can you do? Walk into those areas and do a pogrom? It’s a fait accompli. Once you allow these things to set up, and once you tolerate these ghettos…

S.B.: Maybe it’s too late for places like Sweden for example…

C.P.: But what can you do?

S.B.: First of all, there are ways to put pressure on mainstream Islamic leaders, who have assets, or who have interests that they don’t want to be harmed, and to impose on them certain behavior. You can say to people, “Listen, in your mosque there are certain things you will not preach, and nobody will preach.”

C.P.: But can they do that? There are Islamist organizations in Europe that profess or claim that they’re fully in line with liberal democracy, but under cover they have a different agenda.

S.B.: First of all, you have to look at what they write in Arabic as opposed to what they write in European languages – it is very different.

C.P.: There is a little bit of deception here, isn’t it?

S.B.: There’s definitely a lot of deception, because what they say inside in their own language…\

C.P.: Isn’t deception part of the jihadist…

S.B.: Taqiya, which is dissimulation, is a basic feature in Shia Islam, because the Shiite is allowed even to pretend he is not a Shiite in order to survive.

C.P.: Taqiya is not a Sunni concept?

S.B.: It is a Shiite concept, but it is also a Sunni concept for the Muslim Brotherhood, where Hassan al-Banna himself allowed taqiya. But that’s going into details about something that’s basically the idea, that if I am an imam of a big mosque, and there are activities in this mosque, I, as a government, or as the security services, or as the police, I should have the right to say, “True, these people are only quoting verses from the Koran, which say how you should kill all the Jews, etc., but even if it’s written in the Koran, you’ve got a lot of verses in the Quran, that you can read day and day out without reaching that verse, and not preach that verse, and you will not give a sermon about that verse, because if you do, we will close down your mosque, we will create problems for you.”

C.P.: But no Western government is willing to do that.

S.B.: That’s the question if you are willing to understand that you are in some sort of civilization clash within Europe. I read a fascinating article, which I mentioned to you before, by Niall  Ferguson,  in which he compared the situation of Europe today to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, where the Roman Empire actually invited the barbarians in and accepted them, and degraded their own Romanism before the final fall of the Roman Empire. I think Europe has values: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion. When European leaders say, “We think that Charlie Hebdo should refrain from insulting. Why provoke people to do the terrorist attacks by painting pictures of Muhammad? We think they should stop it.” So, what they’re saying is that in the conflict between our value, our “religious” value of freedom of expression, which should be as strong, as important, as cardinal for us, as the value of the picture of Muhammad to them, what they’re saying is that we must give up our value in the face of their value. Once you go down this very slippery road, there’s a point where there are no breaks, and you just go down and down. I think this is what is happening in Europe. You even see this in the media, the European media, French, British, and American also, after the Charlie Hebdo attack, they blurred out the pictures of the editions with pictures of Muhammad, so that TV station won’t be considered as having broadcasted insulting pictures of Muhammad.

M.M.: I think they did it mainly out of fear…

S.B.: But the fact is that it’s fear because the governments cannot… You know, the government’s first job is to give security. It’s from the days when our forefathers, the cavemen, appointed the biggest caveman and said, “You keep everybody else out of our cave, and you are a chief.” In other words, government has to provide security.

C.P.: The concept of cultural clash was not taken seriously until now, when it’s there, and it looks the European governments in their faces. Is there any positive way of dealing with this? What we’re looking at is perhaps the rise of reaction in the West.

S.B.: Which is also dangerous.

C.P.: Which is perhaps even more dangerous, because you have the backlash of nationalism and so on. Is there something in between?

S.B.: I think it’s the weakness of government. Government has to face the situation. Governments in Europe, in the West have to say, “Yes, the Middle East has fallen apart.” You cannot cling on to the Chimera of there is a Syrian, go to Geneva, and you know, have discussions, or there is an Iraq, and there is a Yemen, and there is a Libya. Let’s put them to rest, and let’s see how we preserve our interests in this region, and make sure that there is as little as possible spillover. Within Europe, it’s a different problem. There, you have to reconstruct the social contract. The moment you allow the idea of communities, you have to get back and say: there is no such thing as communities in Europe. This isn’t a millet system. We are not creating the Ottoman Empire of Europe, where everybody belongs to a community. The whole idea of individualism in western civilization is that you are a citizen of the State. In no western system was there a hierarchy. Even if you were the lowest peasant in the Middle Ages, you were the peasant who gave his fealty to the baron, or whatever.

C.P.: So it’s a debate between individual rights and group rights, which are mutually exclusive. The US Supreme Court tried to find a middle way, and it did with affirmative action. And affirmative action to protect the minorities is temporary. Once you have group rights that are etched in stone, then it’s a problem.

S.B.: Exactly. But now in Europe you actually are creating a millet system like in the Ottoman Empire, and this has to be stopped. In other words, it has to be clear: if you are a Christian Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu, whatever, and you are living in a European country A, or B, or in United States, you are a citizen of that country. These are the values of that country: free speech, freedom of religion, gender equality, freedom of sexuality – all of that. Now, if you do anything which infringes on any of those principles, those secular principles, then you are out. In other words, if you are not a citizen yet, you are out.

M.M.: What about those who are citizens?

S.B.: Now, those who are citizens. Europe, because of the trauma of the World War II has laws against Nazism, in other words you can be prosecuted for being a Nazi, you can be prosecuted for idealizing Hitler, because Hitler brought that much of the suffering.

C.P.: It’s narrowly defined as anti-Semitism. That nationalism, or radical nationalism in Europe was anti-Semitism.

S.B.: But you know, anti-Semitism today in Europe, by Muslims…

C.P.: … is rampant, sure. But even there the European governments have gone wrong.

S.B.: The problem here is getting back to values and saying very firmly to those various Muslim religious leaders: “You want to live among us, these are the rules.” And you’re going to have to be very clear that in your mosques you won’t be saying these things. It’s not a matter of saying, “Oh, we won’t call for killing Christians, but it’s OK that we can call for killing Jews, or Hindus in Pakistan.” No. And that should be the rule. After 9/11 a very high percentage of the Muslims in Holland was supportive of the attacks. The person who was a coordinator of intelligence called in all of the Imams of Holland, very typically Dutch, all sitting together and have some sandwiches. So he opened up and he said to them, “What’s the problem with you, why this animosity? Look what a nice country we are.: So a person got up and he said, “I am the imam of Utrecht,  and you see, Allah has said that the whole world will be Muslim, and this country will be Muslim too.” Then he said to him, “Sir, what is your profession, what is your education?” He said, “A graduate of the sharia school.” He said, “No, I want to know what your education is in water engineering.” He said, “Excuse me? Water engineering?” “Well, you see, this country that you want to take away from us is already under water, so if you want to take it, you better get a good education in water engineering, otherwise why don’t you go back to where….” This was an inside discussion that he told me about. Two weeks later they discovered that there was a small mistake in his application for citizenship, a date or something like that. And they sent him back to Libya.

C.P.: Well he is probably studying to be a water engineer.

S.B.: This might sound very crude, etc.  And Europeans don’t like that. But I think that there has to be a new social contract.

C.P.: Shmuel, well thank you very much, it was a great discussion. We hope to have you back soon.

S.B.: My pleasure.


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See: Political Islam in South-Eastern Europe and Beyond

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