Many parts of the Middle East are in turmoil. Israel, located right in the center of the region, has to tackle a great deal of regional challenges on its own. Scores of the Middle East''s problems derive from the concept of environmental security; more specifically, from energy, water and food security, combined with land degradation and desertification, which are the key elements in past and current conflicts.
Photo: Samuel Willner
Joint initiatives to rehabilitate shared resources do exist in the region, such as the KKL Italy-supported collaborative effort between Israel, KKL-JNF and the Palestinian Authority to rehabilitate the Alexander River, and more recently, the Red to Dead Sea conduit project, an effort between the Israeli government, KKL-JNF and Jordan to replenish the Dead Sea and increase water resources for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and are making a positive impact on the ground, but alot more still needs to be done.
At the end of November an international conference was organized at Haifa University on ‘Islam in Africa’ hosted by ‘the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies’ and the think-tank "Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa" led by Dr. Moshe Terdiman. The conference consisted of many fascinating presentations and panels, and was attended by senior Israeli government officials and foreign diplomatic corps. The topics varied from Israel''s diplomatic efforts in Africa, water issues and policy, and Iran''s role in the Middle East.
The keynote speaker at the event was Dr. Timothy Furnish, who currently serves the United States military as a consultant. I wanted to hear more from his professional experience in the influence of Islam in the Middle East.
Dr. Timothy Furnish has a doctoral degree in Islamic history and minors in African and world history; he has written multiple research papers and articles on Islam, as well as a book on Mahdism, “Holiest Wars”; and has worked several years as a lecturer and scholar. In the 1980s prior to his academic career he used to serve the United States Army as an intelligence officer focusing in Arabic language. According to Dr. Furnish his work in the US Army took place in a historic era when great deal of intelligence efforts, due to the ''Cold War'' was still concentrated in Russian language and the former Soviet bloc countries and not in Arabic. All together he worked for the US military five years in the locations of Egypt and in US Army bases in Munich, Germany.
Dr. Furnish has an interesting personality and possesses a deep understanding in the Middle East issues. Yet, in order to make the conversation a bit lighter he mentions his German skills, and jokes about learning one ''quite important'' sentence while he was stationed in Germany: "Ein bier, bitte! - One beer, please!"
In addition to his doctoral degree he has a master''s degree in theology, which has widened greatly his analyzing process and skills. He is also one of the few Americans who has been to Iran since the Islamic Republic was created. He has a balanced professional opinion on Israel and explains to me about the complicated political relations in the Middle East. After listening awhile I realize that actually we know quite little about the region and importance of understanding the impact of Islam in the Middle East.
Photo: Samuel Willner
The American audience and being a professional: Dr. Furnish continues to explain that it is far more important for the US Government to understand what Muslims think about Syria than what, for instance, the American evangelical Christians think about it. "When I analyze the Islam and Muslims in the world, I try not to mix my own beliefs into my analysis. I always keep it professional. This is for instance when we talk about mahdi, who is a person, or personality, that the Muslims are expecting to come in the later days”, explains Dr. Furnish. He also continues that although himself being a Christian, “I cannot make an assessment to the US military and other intelligence agencies based on, for example, how the ‘mahdi’ might fit into a Christian reading of the New Testament book of Revelation - it would not be appropriate."
Research and intelligence: "In our today''s meeting, the Israeli intelligence cadets asked me many interesting questions ranging from economics to Palestinian issues and Iran", says Dr. Furnish, and points out that "one of the important questions is the impact of economics on terrorism. For instance there have been Palestinian suicide bombers who were well educated and established—and thus are not driven by poverty but, primarily, by Islam. This is why I take things very seriously. We have to look at the culture, economics, politics and psychology in addition to religion—but it cannot be ignored. In intelligence analysis, much like historical analysis, you put yourself in the others'' position. It is very important to understand the others—even when we do not agree with them.”
In Israel we are so close: Now we return back to the Mount Carmel. Looking down, I see the valley and Haifa Bay curving towards north; on the coastline Haifa is followed by the cities of Akko, Nahariya and Rosh Hanikra, which is located right by the border with Lebanon. No matter whether we are in America, Europe or elsewhere in the world, "it is important to keep in mind that we are quite far away from all these issues Israel is experiencing every day. If you live here in Haifa, for instance, you are in the range of terrorists'' missile fire. This is very important to remember for Americans", concludes Dr. Timothy Furnish.