One on One: Taking the Fall

Arab scholar Uriya Shavit's take on the clash of civilizations.

uriyashavit224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Uriya Shavit is not what you'd expect in an editor and columnist at the Hebrew daily, Makor Rishon. It's not that he doesn't wear a kippa. In spite of paper's reputation as a right-wing, pro-settler periodical, a number of its staff members, contributors and readers are not observant. Nor is Shavit's young age and even younger looks what sets him apart. At 32, the Arab affairs scholar - who divides his time between teaching at Tel Aviv University, doing research at the Moshe Dayan Center, where he is a fellow, and putting out MR's weekend magazine - is probably somewhere within the overall average. What is particularly striking about Shavit and what distinguishes him from his colleagues at MR is his worldview - more precisely his take on the Middle East and the West, and on the roots of and solutions to the raging conflict between them. This he spells out in his newly released book - based on his PhD thesis and other writings - The Wars of Democracy; The West and the Arabs from the Fall of Communism to the War in Iraq (published in Hebrew by TAU's Moshe Dayan Center). Your book deals with whether the clash of civilizations is inherent or whether it is politically motivated. Is there or is there not a real difference between Arabia and the West? There is a difference, but is it inherent? No. Do things have to be in the future as they are now? No. What I try to show in the book is that the whole concept of "clash of civilizations" was mirrored from Western thought to Arab thought and back again, each time escalating. So, for example, when [Samuel] Huntington wrote [the 1993 article that would become a book in 1996] The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, he quoted only one Arab scholar: [Saudi Sheikh] Safar al-Hawali. In turn, Hawali draws on the likes of Huntington when he says the West is on the brink of civilizational war against the Arabs. So, Huntington says, "Beware - we have an Islamic civilization that wants to attack us," drawing on Hawali who does the same by drawing on Huntington. And neither, I'm quite sure, read the other in the original. This whole concept of a civilizational clash became ingrained in Arab thought after the end of the Cold War. It was something that most Western commentators either misinterpreted or completely ignored. The basic idea was that now that the Soviet Union had fallen, and the former opposing Western countries were now friends, the West would now do its utmost to attack the Muslim and Arab world - its last serious opponent. So, while for most Westerners, the liberation of Kuwait during the first Gulf war [in 1991] was a minor local event, for Arab intellectuals it signified an attempt by the West to start the reconquest of the Muslim world. They even cautioned that the whole [precursor to the] war was actually a plot to encourage [Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein to conquer Kuwait, so that the West could install some 300,000 soldiers on Saudi Arabian soil as the first step toward conquering Iraq at a future date, in order to establish Western global hegemony, benefit the little Jewish state, and to gain control over the world's oil reserves. Hawali in some respects was Osama bin Laden's mentor. And what they both said was: "We must do to the West what the West is doing to us." This view, I believe, is the real root of al-Qaida. To accomplish this, certain things had to be done, among them purifying the Muslim world of anything not Islamic, and using what they said was a Western technique: utilizing collaborators in the Arab world - regimes and intellectuals supporting Westernization from within. We - they said - must therefore use agents on Western soil to spread our own beliefs. This view was very widespread in Arab intellectual circles. Bin Laden's innovation was to add the word "violently." Are you saying that the concept of making societies more Islamic is less a religious belief than a strategy in this war of ideas? It is a religious idea which gets out into some sort of strategic-analytic framework. But if you're a religious Muslim who takes the Koranic texts literally, wouldn't you believe in conquering the "infidels" by the sword, whether or not the Hawalis or bin Ladens were telling you the West was infiltrating your society from within? This whole concept of conquering the world by the sword is very complex. Because even al-Qaida's main concern is not making the world Muslim, but rather getting the West out of Muslim lands. It is true that if you're a Muslim, you believe that one day the world will be all Muslim, because this was God's promise to his prophet. But the idea of using violence to achieve Islamic domination is not shared by most Muslims. You say that the Arab view was that the West was infiltrating Muslim societies. Al-Qaida then attacked the United States. But wasn't it actually Soviet propaganda methods - as written about extensively by Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs associate Joel Fishman - that the Arab world has been imitating? That's a good point, but while for most Westerners, the fall of the Soviet Union signified the triumph of liberal democracy and victory of the US, for most Arabs, the fall of the Soviet Union was one of two steps in the fall of Western materialistic thought. For them, this was not an American triumph, but an Arab one. In the early 1990s, most Arab intellectuals foresaw the imminent demise of the US, following that of the Soviet Union. They saw the Soviet Union as the first branch of materialistic, secular, arrogant Western thought to fall, and the US as the larger branch that was about to follow suit. Dozens of [Arabic] essays and books from that period claimed that the Muslim world was very close to attaining world hegemony. Arab regimes had to explain to their people why they weren't democratizing, like the Czech Republic and Mongolia, for example. So they used rhetoric celebrating their structures as manifestations of a "pure" Muslim and Arab essence. The likes of bin Laden, meanwhile, genuinely believed that Islam's time had come. And people like him grew very frustrated with the Saudi regime for not kicking out all the Americans, so that Islam could spread all over the world. In "fairness" to the Saudi regime, Wahhabism has been spreading all over the world. Yes, but under pressure from the militants within. The Saudis were very clever in understanding that they couldn't simply crush this movement calling for Islamization of their society. And they knew they had to do something. So what did they do? They told the Islamists, "Well, you're right, but it's much more important to spread Islam in Berlin or London." What about Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has branches all over the world. Is President Hosni Mubarak doing what you say the Saudis are doing - distracting the extremists in his country by sending them to wreak havoc elsewhere? In a way. Some Muslim Brotherhood scholars are very persistent in the idea of sending Muslims to the West in order to Islamize it. Why, then, do both Arab leaders and radical Islamists send their kids to the West to be educated? That's an interesting question. But the most radical manifestations of Islam have come from Arabs who lived in the West for a period of time. They actually became more radicalized there. What part does multiculturalism on the part of the American Left play in such radicalization? This is a philosophical question about what extent we accept the other without trying to change him to be like us. Do we relate to Western democracy as a universal concept or not? Now, most Americans of today, even the Obama-ites, would say yes, America has a mission to make the world more democratic. They don't accept regimes which, say, don't allow women to drive or which are never elected. But now, after the failure of the Iraq war, they feel they must allow peoples to manifest themselves in different ways, and that they must define democracy according to the needs of different peoples. So, for example, Jeffersonian democracy can't be imposed on Egypt. Indeed, the idea that Arabs need a special kind of democracy is now more prevalent. Do you agree with that idea? Well, it's complex and I will try to simplify it. Most Arabs today have adopted the democratic discourse in their narratives. Even Islamic movements advocate democracy, saying that when they come to power, they will have democratic regimes. That's the way the Muslim Brotherhood tries to gain supporters - by saying it would make Egypt democratic. But they say there is an Islamic version of democracy that came to the world before Western democracy, and because it came from God, it is better - in the sense that it is perfect and that it is not for human beings to annul. It is called "shura," the Arabic word for consultation. They say that the prophet was ordered to have a shura system, and they talk about its being a pluralistic system of political parties, with freedom of speech and personal rights guaranteed, the changing of governments and so on. But they also say there is one tiny difference between the way in which the West practices democracy and the way the Arabs will practice it. In [Muslim-Arabian] democracy, the people will have a say in everything except that which the Koran and the Sunna [religious actions instituted by Muhammad] have already ruled upon. In other words, it's not for people to amend the laws of God. Now this might be something even liberal democrats could live with, but the Islamists never answer one very crucial question: Who will decide what was already ruled upon? Some council of elders? A high court? This is why I'm a little suspicious about this idea about having an authentic Muslim democracy. Why do you say that the war in Iraq is a failure, when, by all accounts, the surge is successful? I am not judging the war; I am judging the doctrine behind it. President George W. Bush adopted a completely new doctrine for American policy in the Middle East. What this doctrine said was that for 50 years we supported Arab dictatorships, because we thought it would bring us security. Now, after 9/11, we understand that only by bringing freedom to the Middle East will America be secure. And promoting democracy in the Middle East was the prime goal of the war in Iraq. But now, five years later, the Arab world is less democratic than it was before, and is less inclined to accept Western notions of democracy. In this sense, the war is an historic failure. Wouldn't you be saying something similar if we were holding this discussion five years into World War II or the Cold War? Are you not judging this too early from an historical perspective? It's possible, but I wouldn't draw a parallel to World War II, because that was a territorial war, not a war of ideas. Nazism was an idea, was it not? Yes, but its failure or success five years into the war was measured by who was marching into whose capital. The Cold War was a battle of ideas, though, wasn't it? Well, if the US had continued with the Carter administration in 1981, maybe it would have lost. So, I'm not arguing that the war for democracy in the Middle East is not to be won. Which brings me to the question of whether you believe the Arab world can be democratized in the liberal sense. Of course. But for this to have even the smallest chance of success, we must recognize why the Bush doctrine has collapsed so far. Why do you think it has collapsed? There were three major failings from an intellectual perspective. First, a hegemonic mindset in the Arab world was not recognized. The view of the West as an imperialistic force that uses the word "democracy" to promote its interests and to enforce its materialistic and hedonistic values was not acknowledged by any of the neoconservatives or by Bush himself. They did not address the fact that most Arabs thought the West was plotting, from the end of the Cold War, to reconquer the Arab world through democratic reasoning. This was what Arab intellectuals were warning about in 1992. Then, 10 years go by, and even the same names were involved - Bush - albeit the father, [Dick] Cheney, [Colin] Powell. The Arabs see this as a natural progression from the first Bush administration to the current one - with an eight-year "Clinton accident" in the middle. Second, neoconservatives always draw on the success regarding the Soviet Union to explain why it should work in Iraq. But they miss one important distinction between the contribution of neocons to the fight against Communism and their contribution to the War in Iraq. Neoconservatives in the 1970s themselves said that evil should be fought, not appeased. And that's good. When Jeane Kirkpatrick published "Dictatorships and Double Standards" in [the November 1978 issue of] Commentary, and Ronald Reagan adopted its premise as his policy, and appointed her ambassador to the UN. What the article said was that a distinction must be made between types of non-democratic regimes. And she helped Reagan rationalize why the US was fighting the Soviet Union and not Argentina. This is something the neocons have never done in the context of the Arab world. So Arabs have to ask why the West fought the Iraqi regime and not the Saudi or Egyptian. Why Baghdad and not Riyadh? If you don't have some academic or ideological explanation for this, the whole moral structure of the war in Iraq fails. Now, I think it can be rationalized by saying that some Arab regimes have no chance of changing from within, and these we have to fight. With other regimes, it could be a process that takes 20-30 years, and it's better that it be a gradual process. But this is something Bush never said. The third failing is something we could possibly debate - and it's not the main issue - but I think it would have been easier if a country like Germany or the Netherlands or Denmark were the one preaching democracy, because there is an intellectual problem with somebody coming from the state of Texas - where executions are competitive to those in China or Iran - and preaching democracy. There was also a problem preaching democracy and having Guantanamo at the same time. That's the first thing the Arabs would say. Isn't it a stretch comparing executions in Texas to those in China and Iran? And haven't we seen that the events at Guantanamo were seriously blown out of proportion, on the one hand, and on the other that the US responded by punishing the guilty parties - while the Arabs hail as heroes their own people who commit similar atrocities? Yes, but when you put yourself in the position of being the world's moral example, then you can't have moral flaws. You have to be the shining light of democracy. And the fact is that Guantanamo harmed the way the world viewed the US. For example, there was a way to handle prisoners without humiliating them. Another example is the way Saddam Hussein was arrested and given a medical checkup in front of the whole world, which was a deliberate attempt at humiliation. And when you humiliate someone who has millions of followers, it is as if you are humiliating them, too. Even I was offended in a way. So imagine what an Iraqi must have felt. If the Bush administration had recognized what you claim it did not, how would it have done things differently? How would the doctrine be different? In several ways. First, because the main point invoked by Arab intellectuals about American policy is that the US wants their oil not their democratization, then reducing American dependency on oil would have been a good start - to prove to the Arabs that what interests America is not the oil. Aren't you placing the burden of proof on the West in everything you're saying? Yes! But there is a burden of proof on the West. At Camp David in 2000, when PLO chief Yasser Arafat rejected Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak's offer for Palestinian statehood, and immediately launched a terror war against Israeli civilians, the tendency was to blame Barak for not having paid Arafat the proper respect. Come now, at some point, don't we have to stop excusing radical behavior by trying to understand it? I see what you're getting at and I agree. In the end, the burden is on the Arabs. They will have to decide what type of societies they want. Ultimately, of course, we have to ask, "Where is the Arab Lech Walesa? Where is the Arab Vaclav Havel?" And If one doesn't appear, nothing will happen. But we have to ask ourselves: What can the West do to the better the chances of a Walesa or a Havel appearing? If we were to meet five years from now, what would be saying? If there's one thing I've learned from studying democratization processes, it's that they're really impossible to predict. Personally, I don't think democracy is about warfare, economics or social issues. Democracy is an intellectual process, which has to have an elite committed to it. History teaches us that any society can become democratic, just as any society can become a dictatorship.