Zakaria looks to 1,400 years of history to understand radical Islam

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” speaks to a capacity Amphitheater audience during his morning lecture Monday.

The Middle East is once again on fire, and Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” sought to explain it in his Monday morning lecture at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater. His was the first lecture in Week Eight’s theme of “Chautauqua’s Global Public Square.”

Viewing the region’s history from “30,000 feet,” Zakaria traced its instability through the centuries-long legacy of conquest, colonialism and foreign control.

“What is happening in the Arab world today is the first time in 1,000 years that the Arabs are in charge of their own affairs, in charge of their own societies,” Zakaria said. “And as a result of that, you are seeing the great unraveling of a great many structures and bonds that have held these places together.”

The formation of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries led to far-reaching territorial conquests, from Central Asia to Iberia. Islam at that time, Zakaria said, was dynamic and intellectually alive, making advances in science and technology and preserving the work of Western philosophers like Aristotle.

“The idea that this advanced civilization was going to be one of the great contenders in the world was commonplace by the eighth, ninth centuries,” Zakaria said.

But a few hundred years later, the Arab armies stopped advancing, Zakaria said. The Arab world was conquered by the Persians, and then by the Ottoman Turks, who ruled what is now the Middle East for several hundred years.

By the 18th century, Zakaria said, Ottoman rule began to wane, and the Arabs may have appeared to be on the threshold of independence. Instead, Napoleon invaded Egypt in the early 19th century, marking the beginning of European domination.

The British and French controlled the region through World War II, when out-and-out colonialism gave way to superpower-bolstered regimes that were supported, funded and armed by the United States and the Soviet Union.

“That was the world of the modern Middle East that we knew,” Zakaria said.

Those regimes looked Western in many ways, he added, and espoused secularist views.

Such regimes frequently represented endangered minority groups, which Zakaria said was a strategy employed by the superpowers to make the leader dependent on foreign help.

Iraq is still ruled by Sunnis, who make up only 15 to 20 percent of the population, and Lebanon was ruled for decades by a Christian minority that banned census taking, which would reveal the country’s overwhelming Muslim majority.

For the same reason, Zakaria said, the modern borders of Middle Eastern states were drawn by foreign powers that took no heed to ethnic and geographical concerns.

“In some ways, that was by design,” he said. “Because if you create a nation that has lots of people within it that squabble — guess what? You need somebody from the outside to break the tie.”

In the 1990s, the Middle Eastern status quo changed, Zakaria said.

“It begins to start coming apart because one of the two superpowers that had been supporting and funding and arming countries like Syria and Iraq and Libya, collapses. And, very simply put, the money runs out,” he said, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the same time, the U.S. began to grow wary of supporting dictatorships with what Zakaria called “checkered histories in human rights.” President Bill Clinton’s administration pushed countries such as Egypt to “open themselves up” economically, politically and socially, Zakaria said.

“That process, of course, continued under the Bush administration, particularly after 9/11, when there was seen to be an urgent imperative to try to do this,” he said. “This was the so-called ‘freedom agenda,’ and greater and greater pressure was placed on these regimes.”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan produced what Zakaria called “superpower fatigue” for the U.S., and for the first time in a millennium, “these countries were not being given unqualified, unquestioned support from very powerful outside forces, and so these regimes started having to govern on their own, and govern their people on their own principles, with their own legitimacy and construct a new political bargain.”

Those regimes have failed at this task, Zakaria said, in countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Stable, secular, ruthless order collapsed, he said.

“It is not simply that the state, the government, collapsed across the wider Middle East,” he said. “It is that the nations collapsed. When the state collapsed, what people realized was that there was no nation there.”

Without a strong national identity, Zakaria said, people cling to other, older identities: Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, Arab, Christian.

“Those identities have become the primary moving forces of the modern Middle East,” he said. “They do not overlap with state and national boundaries. They do not overlap with the loyalties and legitimacy of governments.”

This, Zakaria said, is how the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, only 20,000 strong, has been able to defeat the Iraqi army, armed and trained by the U.S. and far larger than ISIS at 400,000 to 1 million troops.

“In some fundamental sense, there is no Iraqi army,” Zakaria said. “The people in the Iraqi army who are Sunnis didn’t want to fight against their fellow Sunnis.”

On top of these ill-aligned identities, Zakaria said, years of political repression under dictatorships in the Middle East meant that criticizing any government other than the U.S. or Israel was illegal, as was any social organization other than the mosque.

“The mosque became, quietly, the only place that people could organize themselves in opposition to these dictatorships,” he said. “And religion became the only language of opposition, because it was the only language that was allowed, in a sense.”

Enter political Islam.

Presenting itself in opposition to superpower-backed dictators, Islamists identify with the more “indigenous, authentic” religiosity in order, Zakaria said, to return to a purer form of government. From the Taliban to Iraqi militias to fundamentalists in North Africa, political Islamists are “bunches of thugs,” Zakaria said, trying to run communities and occupy themselves.

It is no coincidence, he added, that the region has an excess of unemployed young men. Youth bulges are a factor common to social and political revolutions from the French Revolution to the Iranian Revolution to the 1960s counterculture revolution in the U.S.

In conclusion, Zakaria said, the rest of the world should be suspicious of quick answers, particularly U.S. intervention, to Middle Eastern turmoil. The unrest in the region serves as a reminder, he said, of the importance of order, which the U.S. takes for granted.

And finally, he said, the Middle East demonstrates that democracy and liberty are not one and the same. The U.S. inherits a tradition of individual rights and the rule of law, which in many ways limit democracy, Zakaria said, reminding the audience that Iraq, Egypt and Russia all have democratically elected leaders.

In closing his lecture, Zakaria re-emphasized the long history of the region’s issues.

“One of the things we can do is step back, try to understand it before we leap in, sure that this time, we in the United States, 8,000 miles away, have the answer,” he said.


Q: Thinking about points you made about Iraq … in the North, the Kurds are behaving in a way that is providing order and a certain amount of tolerance within their borders. Thinking about Northern Iraq and Tunisia, what is it about those two areas that hold promise, or aren’t applicable to the rest of the world?

A: That’s a great question. Why is it that, in Tunisia, there is some success? You have coalition governments, the ability to work things out and move forward. In the Kurdish area of Iraq, it’s virtually autonomous. They have built a remarkably tolerant, forward-looking, American-tolerant society. In fact, a friend of mine who recently went there told me, ‘They are probably the most American-tolerant part of the planet.’ I said, ‘More than Israel?’ and he replied, ‘They’re always kvetching about something the Americans are doing. To the Kurds, we’re always right.’

Part of it is good leadership. You can’t underestimate the impact. Think about South Africa. We look at what’s going on here when a majority takes over and has been long repressed, and they think ‘It’s our time. It’s our chance to exact this terrible retribution.’ The real puzzle is why that didn’t happen in South Africa. Why was Mandela able to come to office and say ‘We’re not going to do that?’ That ability to go for truth and reconciliation rather than retribution is really the puzzle. I think Tunisia has always had its eye more on Europe. The Islamists there have always been moderate, never taken a recourse to violence, and always aware that their legitimacy stemmed from public support. These violent groups have no public support. ISIS doesn’t want to have elections — it precisely uses violence because it can’t have elections. Finding legitimacy through public support is very important. I really want to write about the Kurds because they’re so damn moderate, they’re so western, and in some ways they’ve retained a tight ethnic bond despite persecution. Honestly, it is a puzzle as to why they have been able to construct, in a face of complete chaos, a reasonably tolerant place. I know that if there is one group worth supporting and the United States’ full support, it is those people.

Q: What structures are in place to educate, train, and prepare people for self-governance in the Middle East?

A: Well, I think it’s important to point out that I’m not making some sort of genetic argument. Arabs, Muslims — they’re certainly more than capable of self-government. In the last month, the largest Muslim country in the world took a huge step forward towards self-democracy. That country was Indonesia. They have more Muslims than Iraq, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco — all the gulf states — put together. 250 million. They voted against Islamic radicalism now for 20 years, but they voted for a forward-looking businessman. This isn’t about being Muslim; it’s not even about being Arab. There are places like Dubai, Jordan. These are pockets that have managed to maintain oases of decency. It is about political institutions that have not had the time to mature. It is a historical process. It is a recognition that it takes time for it to take place. Because of the colonial legacy, because of the artificial nature of these countries, you did not have the tradition of institution building and civil society building that takes hundreds of years. We have to hope those are being built over time, and it’s a slow process unfortunately.

The only hope in the short term is that one of the accelerants of this historically is brutal sectarian war. What I mean by that is they are confronted with the abyss. Just as the 30-year war in Europe presented such. President Obama said in an interview last week that he was encouraged by some of the things that were happening in Iraq, because he thought that the Shia majority realized that they couldn’t have 100 percent of the power; that there was a price to be paid. Perhaps that will be true in other places as well, that they will recognize that when you take all the power … I wish I could give you a pretty answer that this will be a bunch of Rotary Clubs sprouting up, but I think you have to see the consequences before moving to a power-sharing system.

Q: Let’s talk about oil — what is its role in all of this and what are the chances that the turmoil in the Middle East spreads to Saudi Arabia?

A: Oil has been the mother’s milk of this whole process of arrested state development, arrested nation development and illegitimate governance. Historically, if you look over Western history, a very important part of creating legitimate governance has been taxation. I know this will sound odd to those of you who are conservatives, but taxation is directly connected with liberty. What I mean by this is when governments started to tax people, people started to say, ‘Hey, we have to get something in return. Representation — legitimate governance — we need some kind of a bargain here.’ That became the foundation for the nature of the bond that was developed, the social contract between the governing and the governed in the Western world. If you assume that the government simply wants to get rich, it only has one option, which is to enrich you and then tax you. If Ayn Rand’s fantasy that the government’s only goal is to only accumulate wealth, then they have to allow you to get rich and then tax the living hell out of you.

Except there is another way, and they found it in the Middle East. If the government has access to natural resources like oil, you don’t need the people; you drill holes in the ground. Then you have a very different relationship. If you think of the founding cry of the Boston Tea Party — ‘No taxation without representation’ – Saudi Arabia agrees with that. They say don’t worry, ‘No taxation, no representation.’ So you have stunted growth of government, let alone democratic government. This is by the way one of the biggest dangers of foreign aid. If the primary source of support for them comes out of Washington, New York, London, then they aren’t building roots in their society. You want governments to be forced to tax their people, because then the people demand something in return.

I tend to think that Saudi Arabia is more stable than people believe, because the people approach it in a very interesting way. It is not only a ruling class, it is a ruling tribe. When you talk about the ruling family, it is about 60,000 people. They intermarry — and remember, they have four wives. It’s one of the reasons why the Saudi kind is always 85 years old. When you die, it’s your next-oldest brother who takes over. I believe there are now 66 in line. The next one in line right now is 84.

Q: There are about 1,000 questions on Israel and your take on what’s going on with them and Gaza. What, among the things you’ve talked about, are relevant here? Where does it leave Israel, do they have any partners in the Middle East?

A: In the short run, it is hard to fault Israel for wanting to protect their citizens. Israel is a democratic state, it faces this enormous fire of rockets … when we talk about war crimes, intentionally firing rockets on civilians would be a significant war crimes if they were ever able to kill anyone. It is only because of Israel’s defense that has made it possible for it to be not a massive outrage and a cause of massive world worry and calls for retribution and such. That doesn’t absolve Hamas of the intentionality of that reality, and then you add to it these tunnels that burrow through and are explicitly designed to kidnap not Israeli soldiers but Israeli citizens. So there’s no question that in the short run, Israel is morally justified, legitimate in what it’s doing. I think it would be difficult to imagine if you were living in a country and your government didn’t take action like that.

I think the broader context is how they solve this problem in the long run beyond one tactical operation. Israel has now been in occupation of those lands since 1967. When you control everything that goes in and out, the airspace, you are responsible for what goes on in that place even if you allow local governance. This is a well established principle in world law.

I think the question Israel has to ask itself now is what they are going to do about it? It is in a unique position in which they cannot give these people the vote because that would unravel the country, and they don’t want to give them the country. If you think about that, it’s even really different from Vladimir Putin’s actions with the Chechens. Israel faces what has traditionally been the colonial dilemma — we can’t give you your own vote but we don’t want to give you your own country. Obviously, the solution, and many in Israel believe this, is to create a two-state solution with Palestine and Israel living together. Think about what we were just discussing — you don’t know what the solution is in Syria or Iraq or the rest of the Middle East. Here, we know what the solution is. Everyone knows what it is, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, there is just no tunnel. There is no path to get to what we know to be blindingly obvious. Two states, approximately 67 boundaries, land-swaps to make things work.

Why it can’t work has blame lying on both sides: On the Palestinian side, you have had a rejectionist movement in Hamas, one that rejects Israel’s right to exist even now under these circumstances. You can understand why, it is very difficult to negotiate a peace treaty with someone who says they’re then going to destroy you. It’s a dilemma and one they have to deal with if there’s going to be long-lasting piece.

Israel’s culpability lies in what, I believe, is them being too comfortable living in this world in which they have largely solved the problem of terrorism through the wall and the Iron Dome. Their economy has taken off, and they have allowed themselves to believe they have solved this problem and continue to do things on the ground that continue to make things impossible. The creation of these roads and bypasses…if you were to live in the West Bank and had to go through four hours of checkpoints to get to and from work, not just the time but the ritual humiliation, it would be very difficult to maintain a spirit of calm. That reality has become worse as Israel has become more conservative among many dimensions. You’ve had the rise of these tough, Russian-oriented parties. The Russians who immigrated during the 1990s and 2000s — they are largely responsible for Israel’s tech boom. It turned out that most of the Russian engineers were Jewish, so when they left, they, they brought an enormous brainpower with them. I hate to put it this way, but they’re also, well, Russian. They’re tough, the way they deal with political opponents is, well, there’s a reason Putin has 85 percent approval ratings.

There is real culpability there because Israel is vibrant, it is democratic, it is prosperous, but it can’t kick this can down the road. There are 4 million people they’re responsible for … I worry about Israel’s survival as a Jewish, democratic marvel of the world. If you give that up … if 10 years from now, 20 years from now, what is the solution. That’s where I think there needs to be a greater emphasis.

I think the answer in the short term is to build up the West Bank, to make them an envy of the people in Gaza. The way to get Gaza to reject Hamas is probably not to pulverize Hamas. That’s not going to make them unpopular — it’s going to make them more popular because they’re opposing Israeli aggression. What’s going to make them unpopular is if people in the West Bank have a per-capita GDP that is 10-times Gaza’s.

Take the Ukraine and their wanting to break free from Russia. Poland and Ukraine had the same GDP in 1990 when the USSR broke up. Poland’s GDP is now three-times that of the Ukraine. The Ukrainians looked at Poland and said ‘Why can’t we be like them?’ What we want is for Gaza to look at the West Bank and ask the same question. That’s when Hamas will be destroyed, and that’s when you will have the opportunity for a two-state solution.

—Transcribed by Will Rubin