America and Islam After Bush
Some of the nation’s leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in December, 2008, for the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life.
Vali Nasr, author of the 2006 book, The Shia Revival, surveyed the geo-political landscape of today’s Middle East, arguing that the 2003 invasion of Iraq has fundamentally shifted the region’s balance of power. With Iran gaining influence, Iraq ruled by a Shia-led government and Hezbollah carrying the politically potent anti-Israeli mantle, Shia religious and political forces are displacing Sunni and Arab forces. While American foreign policy has previously focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its neighbors, Nasr argued the most important conflicts of the Middle East now revolve around the Shia/Sunni sectarian divide. Jeffrey Goldberg, a long-time Middle East correspondent, related his experiences of interviewing Lebanese and Pakistani extremists, as well as breakfasting with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
Vali Nasr, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Jeffrey Goldberg, National Correspondent, The Atlantic
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Navigate this Transcript:
Vali Nasr speaks on:
The Middle East no longer Arab-centered
Iran is on the rise
Sunnis and Shias are locked in an intense rivalry
A final deal in Iraq would be “monumental”
A Sunni-Shia primer
Iran aims to win Arab support through anti-Israeli aggression
Jeffrey Goldberg responds:
Meeting with Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leader
Conversation with a Hezbollah leader
Sunni extremism versus Shia ambition
Breakfast with Ahmedinejad
The West is collateral damage in Islam’s identity crisis
Discussion with journalists:
Does Sunni-Shia conflict serve American interests?
Ayatollah Sistani is a Muslim Pope Benedict
What will Obama do?
Can Iran survive its internal weaknesses?
Is the Arab-Israeli conflict really less important now?
The future of American democracy-promotion efforts
How al-Qaeda appeals to a lost generation
Twice a year I meet with eight of your colleagues for lunch, and we talk about what topics we want to discuss in Key West. The topic we’re investigating this morning was suggested by our respondent, Jeffrey Goldberg, of The Atlantic, who said at one of these luncheons, “We’ve only had one president and one administration since 9/11. Wouldn’t it be important look ahead at what America’s relationship to Islam and the world might be in a future administration?” Jeff said the best person in the world to do that is our speaker this morning, Vali Nasr. We tried to get Professor Nasr here before, but he’s a very busy man, so we’re delighted he was able to join us today.
As many of you know, Professor Nasr is one of the leading scholars on politics and religion in the Middle East, and his books are cited as the best on the topic, especially his recent book, The Shia Revival.
We’re delighted, Professor Nasr, that you could be with us this morning. Thank you for coming.
VALI NASR: Good morning, it’s great to be here. Thank you for inviting me, and thank you, Jeff, for thinking of me.
For our discussion today, I want raise a number of issues I think will be important in considering how a new administration may approach the thorny issues in the region and how religion fits into those.
It goes without saying that two major challenges, or threat areas, face the new administration. One of them is encapsulated in the Iranian challenge, although beyond the nuclear issue we have very little grasp of what that actually means. I would like to delve much more into that. The second challenge revolves around the question of al-Qaeda, which we know a lot more about and maybe have a better grip on.
A key issue that has bedeviled American foreign policy and is a challenge for the new administration is, first of all, to understand the nature of each of these threats, but more importantly to understand how they relate to one another: Are they the same, or are they different? And which is actually more of a threat, and in what regard? How do they impact one another? We have to think about these questions to avoid going around and around, and still find ourselves back to where we were at the beginning. I think answering these questions are key, not just for American policy makers, but also for the American public, to bring us to a level of understanding beyond the one that we’re currently at.
The world has changed significantly since 2003, as we know. The Middle East has changed in a very significant way. Part of the problem is we have never really understood we are dealing, post-Iraq, with Middle East 2.0: that there are some fundamental, and in my opinion irreversible, shifts in the balance of power of the region.
First, there is a palpable, significant, and, I think for the time being, irreversible shift of power and importance from the Levant – the area of Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Syria – to the Persian Gulf and the Afghanistan/Pakistan corridor. The region that for 50 years was the basis of our foreign policy – we thought its conflicts mattered most, our alliances there mattered most – does not matter as much to peace and security anymore. When the Lebanon war happened in 2006, the country that had most to do with it was not in the neighborhood. It was Iran. The countries in that neighborhood could do nothing to stop the war, and this was attested to by Israel, the United States and the regional powers themselves.
Everybody today thinks the Palestinian issue has to be solved because it is a surrogate to solving a bigger problem, which is somewhere else in the region. Once upon a time we used to think – and some people still do – that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the key to solving all the problem of the regions: terrorism, al-Qaeda, Iran or Iraq. I don’t believe so. I think the Persian Gulf is the key to solving the Arab-Israeli issue. All the powers that matter – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even the good news of the region: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, et cetera – are all in the Gulf. And all the conflicts that matter to us – Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran – are in the Gulf and then to the east.
So the Arab-centeredness of the Muslim Middle East is gone. We haven’t caught up to that in our foreign policy. The Middle East now is far more Iranian and Pakistani and Afghani in terms of the strategic mental map we have to deal with. Trying to deal with the Middle East as if we’re in 2002, before the Iraq war, is one of the main reasons why we haven’t been able to bring the right force to bear on the problems in the region.
The second shift, connected to this, is a palpable movement from the Arab world toward Iran. The Arab world has declined very clearly in its stature and power; Iran is a rising force. You don’t have to take my word; just listen to the Iranians and the Arab leaders. You don’t hear the Iranians worried about the Arab world; you don’t hear a single Iranian leader express any kind of anxiety; in fact, in a very patronizing way they constantly say to Arab countries, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. You don’t need to rely on the United States; we’ll protect you.”
Then listen to Arab leaders. The first thing every American official hears when he or she arrives in an Arab capital is worry about Iran. It’s clear that the balance of power – and a lot of power is a matter of perception – has moved eastward. The center of gravity has moved eastward. It’s a problem for us because most of our alliance investments were to the west, in the Arab world. Now, those alliances have not done for us as much as we hoped they could, even in the Arab-Israeli issue, where they were supposed to be the ones providing all the help.
The third and, again, connected shift is that after Iraq there is a palpable shift in the religio-political sphere from the Sunnis to the Shias, a sect of Islam that has been completely invisible to us. We all of a sudden discovered them, but I don’t think we quite understand what we discovered and what it means for us going forward. A fourth, related shift is that many of the conflicts we are dealing with, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, involve insurgent Sunni forces.
The losers in America’s battles in this region are not evenly distributed among the actors I’m mentioning. The Sunni powers, the Arab powers, have clearly lost as a consequence of our wars of choice and necessity in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran and its allies and the Shia forces have clearly gained. So when we look at Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re essentially facing revanchist forces – forces who lost and refuse to accept what has happened and believe they can come back. All of these dynamics are now embedded in the power structure of the region, namely this Shia-Sunni issue. The Arab-Iranian issue is encapsulated in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry around the Gulf and in Iranian-Arab rivalry over the future of Lebanon and the Palestinian issue. These conflict-area issues are going to continuously reflect those dynamics.
Lebanon, for instance, is going to reflect the power play in this region. The winners and losers in these wars are not only the local people. A larger force has been unleashed since the Iraq war. This Iranian-versus-Arab, Shia-versus-Sunni, Persian Gulf powers-versus-the Levant dynamic is going to play itself out. The insurgencies going against the United States are also connected to this, because, as I mentioned, they are intent on turning back the clock in the Middle East to before 2003. So these insurgencies will be ongoing until the final shape of this region is settled. It’s not just a matter of troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, we’re dealing with something larger going on in this region.
Connecting these geo-strategic issues to what’s happened in this region religiously is very important. We talk about Iran and Saudi Arabia as countries in secular terms, the way we think of France or Germany or a power play in Europe – that is, in terms of realpolitik – but in the mental map of Muslims, they also represent two large civilizational blocks within Islam. Namely, Iran stands for Shia power, whether or not it wears it on its sleeve. Saudi Arabia and the Arab world essentially represent the Sunni face of Islam. In many ways we think there is a single Islamic threat out there, but that’s not the case.
There is an intense rivalry between these two sects of Islam, between both the radical elements of each and the establishment elements of each. This civilizational or cultural or religious battle within Islam is now very clearly tied to everything that’s happened after Iraq. Therefore it is not going to stop, because it’s not a matter of getting a couple of clerics in a room to say nice things about one another; it’s not an ecumenical exercise. There is a huge power play associated with this.
We all know how Iraq opened this fissure. It ended up being a turning point for a variety of reasons. First, it is of symbolic value: Post-Saddam Iraq is the first Shia Arab state in history. That represents a major turning of the tide. Now, 60 to 65 percent of Iraq is Shia, which means about 80 percent of its Arab population is Shia. In Lebanon, 30 to 40 percent of the population may be Shia, which makes it the single largest community in the country. Seventy-five percent of Bahrain is Shia, and 10 percent of Saudi Arabia is Shia, roughly speaking. Shias makes up between 20 and 25 percent of Pakistan, 30 percent of Kuwait, 20 percent of the United Arab Emirates and about 20 percent of Afghanistan. Yet for so long, when we looked, we didn’t see the Shias, particularly in the Arab world.
So where was this invisible population? It was there. What the U.S. did in Iraq was to show a way to reverse this trend; namely, it showed a path to empowerment for the Shia, first through regime change and secondly through elections. The Shias took to elections very aggressively after Iraq. I remember the very first thing Hezbollah’s television stations said after elections in Iraq was, “We want exactly that – one man, one vote – not this democracy where at the end of the day the minorities end up ruling.” The Shias in Saudi and the Bahrain said the same thing.
So Iraq is symbolically very important. But the process in Iraq broke down; they ended up fighting one another. The fighting was very polarizing because the Sunnis in Iraq and their supporters in the Arab world cast the Shias as the cat paw of Iran; they referred to the Maliki government and its predecessor as Iranian stooges and routinely referred to them as the Safavid government, referring to the Shia empire that ruled over Iran and southern Iraq in the 1500s and 1600s. And the Iranians did invest heavily in creating these ties within Iraq.
But it’s not just about Iraq. We should all take heart in the fact that violence has stopped, although I for one don’t believe we’re out of the woods. We have a ceasefire in Iraq; we don’t have a deal yet. And when you don’t have a deal between fighting factions, ceasefires are, by definition, unstable. So at some point we either have to find a way to convert the ceasefire into an agreement, or we’ll go back to fighting. There is no two ways about it. Or we’re going to sit there indefinitely with the same troop numbers or higher to prevent them from fighting. The reason for fighting hasn’t gone away, partially because it goes to exactly what I said: The final solution in Iraq will either confirm Iran’s ascendance or confirm some kind of Arab restoration.
Therefore a lot rides on that final solution. In fact, it’s a singular mistake to think you can have a deal by having only Iraqis agree to it, because what they agree to will have much broader implications for where the power in that region will lie. A final deal in Iraq is monumental to the Middle East. It will be the deal that decides the shape of the Middle East. But we don’t think in those terms; we think extremely narrowly, as if it’s a matter of getting two warring factions in the room.
As a side note, we should have learned by now from Afghanistan and Iraq that Middle Eastern governments have enormous amounts of patience to wait us out. Just because we beat Pakistan out of Afghanistan didn’t mean they agreed to give it up, and, seven years later, they are taking it back whether we like it or not. Therefore a deal that doesn’t reflect some buy-in from these neighbors is not going to last, and – maybe not next year or the year after but eventually – we’ll go back to having fighting in Iraq.
So it’s bigger than Iraq now. It’s become this Shia-Sunni issue because it goes to the heart of who, ultimately, will be the major power in this region. There are areas of conflict in the region around this issue. Lebanon is very fragile, because the issue in Lebanon is exactly the same. There is a Shia population that believes it is the majority, in the political sense; they believe they have 40 percent of the population but only 18 percent of the parliament and none of the executive offices of the state. The commander of the army, the prime ministership and the presidency all go to non-Shias.
Here too, the Shia are going after a minority Sunni government, in its mind, along with its Christian supporters. Similarly, Bahrain is extremely fragile, not just because Iran is investing in it, or because it’s the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, but also because these tensions are very much there. We see this problem surfacing: Only two months ago the eminent Sunni cleric, popular on al-Jazeera, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, gave a very nasty fatwa against the Shias, arguing they are on a binge to convert Sunnis to Shiism. He came under very severe criticism, and then he refined his arguments, saying he was really referring to Iranian Shias.
He went to the heart of the matter. He was saying not that the Shias are a threat, but that Iran is a threat. We don’t have a sense of whether any Sunnis are converting to Shiism, although we do hear a lot of rumors of that, particularly after the Lebanese war in 2006. The aura of power is with Shias, and there is now talk of communities merging in Algeria, in Senegal, in Nigeria and in Syria. Even in Saudi Arabia there is talk, including among high society, that there are either nominal or real conversions to Shiism going on. Some of it has to do with the power the city of Qom is now playing as the Oxford of religious studies in the Muslim world.
Only about a month ago Pakistani/Taliban forces put a complete siege on a parrot’s beak of a territory in northwest Pakistan, right on the edge of the FATA region, called the Kurram Agency, which protrudes into Afghanistan. That’s a Shia region, with a Shia population of about 250,000, whom the Taliban have basically been starving to death for the last six months. The Shia leadership in Pakistan argue that the Pakistan intelligence agency, ISI, is in on this. It ultimately took Ayatollah Sistani and a major campaign to at least bring it into international news: The New York Times had an article about the seizure of Kurram in July. But as we speak the territory is still under siege, and it’s a purely sectarian issue.
Then within Pakistan you have now essentially a Shia government. President Zardari is Shia; his prime minister is Shia; and his foreign minister is half Shia. Zardari is a very staunch Shia and many of his people in power are Shia. Part of the clash between the civilian government and the jihadis and extremists is sectarian. It’s a sub-current of what’s going on. It’s not a coincidence that the king of Saudi Arabia for the longest time refused to meet Zardari.
The very first destination a Pakistani president heads to, literally within 24 hours of taking office, is Saudi Arabia. And Zardari was given an uncharacteristically cold shoulder by the Saudi government as well as by the Gulf governments. This has less to do with the Pakistan People’s Party’s politics and more to do with the sectarian identity of the person running the country. Now, it’s not to the Shias’ or Zardari’s advantage to advertise this sectarian divide; but everybody knows about it, and it’s very much a part of the campaign against that government within Pakistan at a time when you have heightened insurgency there led by anti-Shia Sunni forces.
For those of you who might not know the difference between Shias and Sunnis, let me give you a quick sense, because we bandy these terms about and at some levels it matters and at others it doesn’t. Those of you familiar with Christian history can think of the East Church/West Church divide, while at some other levels it’s like the Protestant/Catholic divide. It’s a division in Islam that goes back to the very first century of Islam. It’s very old. Like the Eastern Church and Western Church, Shias and Sunnis each believe they hold the original orthodoxy. They got it right, the other guys got it wrong; it’s not that one is the reform of the other.
The reason they separated early on probably looks trivial now; namely, they disagreed over who would succeed the prophet Mohammed. The Sunnis said the community would choose the best among them, while the Shiites came to believe the charisma of the prophet would go by bloodline through his progeny, which was then his cousin and son-in-law Ali, who’s buried in the shrine of Najaf, and then Ali’s children. Regardless of where it began, as with all religious divides, the split grew and they developed a very different sense of history and theology. So their minor separation at the beginning has made them into very different sects today.
I remember one time I was giving a talk on this topic, and a young Iranian girl stood up and said, “We both read the same Koran; we are one; there is no such thing as the Shia-Sunni divide; it’s all the CIA doing this.” And it’s true that Shias and Sunnis both read the same Koran. The trouble is they don’t agree on the interpretation of a single page of it. That’s not unique to Islam, of course; different churches approach biblical interpretation very differently. So with Sunnis and Shias you have different methodologies, different histories and, over time, these have become very different interpretations of Islam. There are basic ways that they differ: for instance, Shias stand differently in prayer than Sunnis do.
A journalist told me that when he went to see the senior Iraqi Sunni politician, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who’s Sunni, Mashhadani went on and on about how he’s non-sectarian and doesn’t believe in Shia/Sunni issues. Then somewhere in the middle of the conversation, he asked the journalist, “By the way, how do you stand at prayer?” which is another way of asking are you Shia or Sunni. Hold your hands in front you, you’re a Sunni. Hold your hands to the side, you’re a Shia.
The Shias and Sunnis differ on points of law, which is very important because Islam is fundamentally a religion of law, much like, say, Judaism. You’re a Muslim not by faith. You’re a Muslim by practice. It is practice that defines a Muslim and practice is defined by law. So your everyday actions are based on law, and law is interpreted by your clerics based on a set of methods and interpretations. So the everyday life of the Shia is guided by Shia law.
Much of the law is the same as the Sunnis’ but there are points of difference. For instance, Shia law is far more permissive on inheritance to women and that’s why in countries like Pakistan the feudal lords all become Shia right before they die because they want to give inheritance to their daughters, and it’s permissible under Shia law, or much more so than under Sunni law. But there are other points of difference in commerce, in criminal law, et cetera.
One of the most important differences is that Shia law, like Anglo-Saxon law, is open-ended. Namely, the clerics, or ayatollahs, continuously interpret the law going forward, whereas Sunni law is much more like French law: It’s canonical; it’s closed. So Ayatollah Sistani will make new law on a daily basis if he’s asked, much like the Supreme Court, whereas Yusuf Qaradawi or al-Azhar cannot make new law. They don’t have the authority to make new law. The law is codified. There is no interpretation to create new law.
So the function of clerics in Shia and Sunni Islam is very different. Ayatollahs hold far more authority than Sunni clerics do. Sunni clerics are like your Protestant bishops. They minister to the affairs of the community and advise on law whereas as the Shia ayatollahs are more like Catholic bishops or the rabbis in Eastern Europe. They have a very powerful communal relationship with the population, in part because Shias have been a suppressed minority but also because they carry within them a certain religious charisma that Sunni clerics do not.
At the popular level, they are very different. As you may have seen in Iraq, Shia believe in the visitation of shrines. They have a very direct and personal relationship with their saints, who are buried in Karbala, Najaf, Samarra and Khadimiyah. There are parallels with Catholicism, like the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico or Fatima in Portugal. Shias visit their shrines and have a sense that they will be healed, or that their prayers will be heard. There is a very direct, immediate and passionate relationship with these shrines that seems to go above and beyond religion. In the old city of Lahore in Pakistan, there’s a big Shia community, which is very poor. They are drug pushers and prostitutes, but one day a year during the religious festival, they all line up behind the famous horse of Imam Husayn, believing that in crying for him on that day, all their sins will be forgiven. So the religion is about passion and that direct relationship.
At a time in the Middle East when religion matters, then what religion you are, by definition, must matter. You should put aside the rhetoric of the Arab world that this is all in the mind of the West or that somehow the U.S. did this. I don’t believe that. I’d seen this long before, particularly after 1979, when Islam became so important to the Middle East. It’s impossible that as more and more people practice Islam, whether it’s in Egypt or Iran or Pakistan, that the way you practice doesn’t become an issue. Muslims don’t convert to another religion and become religious like Koreans did. They turn to their own religion to become religious and that makes it much more, if you would, engaging.
Coming back to the current time period, this is about a game of power. The Shias in the Middle East are far more numerous than official numbers suggest. Globally Shias are about 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim world, but about 90 percent of that Shia population lives in the Middle East, right there between India and Lebanon. Therefore in that arc, sectarian affiliation matters to us.
They are not few, but they have not held on to power. Iraq has opened up a discussion about a power shift, as has the rise of Iran. Iran benefits from the fact that a large population outside of its territory, without necessarily receiving direction from Tehran, benefits from the rise of Iran and therefore will support it and give Iran soft power on the streets. By the same token, those who resist Iranian power are very worried about this cultural extension of Iran outside its boundaries.
This game of power, as I said, is likely to play itself out until we know where the ultimate lines will fall. This Shia phenomenon in the Middle East – I call it the Shia revival – is of extreme importance in this region but it’s one that by and large flies under our radar. We still don’t understand it beyond the narrow sectarian fight in Iraq. I think it is one of the most significant trends in this region, the other one being the rise of violent al-Qaeda-type Salafism. That one, as I said, is all across our headlines. It is easily visible to us, and we at least think we understand it.
This one we don’t understand in large part because we don’t even see it. Maybe 10 or 15 years from now, or further, we’ll look back and say this was the force that shaped this region, beyond the immediate headlines we saw. The change in the dynamic in the Middle East obviously benefits Iran. For Iran, the glass is half full. For those who have been downsized, the glass is half empty.
But the rise of this Shia issue has also provoked a Sunni response. We saw it in 2004 when the King of Jordan talked about a Shia presence, while in this country nobody had yet begun to talk about Shia-Sunni issues. The president of Egypt spoke, after the 2006 Lebanon conflict, of all Shias being loyal to Iran, and therefore being like disloyal Arabs. When Lebanon happened, we had a group of Arab countries for the first time in history break with an Arab force in the middle of a fight with Israel, calling the entire Hezbollah enterprise a Shia power play. You have people like Qaradawi repeatedly talking about an Iranian effort to convert Muslims to the wrong Islam. You can go the websites of multiple pro-al-Qaeda Salafis and find more anti-Iranian rhetoric there than anti-Israeli rhetoric. There is more talk of a Sassanid-Safavid conspiracy against Arabs than there is of a Zionist conspiracy. It’s almost like there is a part of the Arab world that’s trying to construct Arab nationalism as anti-Iran as opposed to anti-Israel, which has been the case previously.
When one U.S. presidential candidate conflated Shia and Sunni extremisms, al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahari in Afghanistan sent out a video saying he would like Iran and Shiiism destroyed, in very clear language. This was a serious, if you would, threat to Iran. If you’re Iranian and not Arab, if you’re Shia and not Sunni, and still you have ambitions of controlling this region, you don’t like these dividing lines deepening. You would like to bring everybody under your umbrella.
Now, Iranians know the Shia-Sunni issue is a problem for them, and that’s exactly why forces that resist the Iranian rise are investing so much in the sectarian war, whether it’s in South Asia, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Iraq, on the airwaves or on the Internet. In all those places there is a concerted effort to heighten attention to the Shia issue. When the Lebanon war happened and Hezbollah became so popular, Hezbollah’s line was, essentially, “If this fight matters to the Arabs, then we are the fighters. We will take care of the Arab problem. The Sunnis have failed to deliver Palestine; the Shias will.”
Ahmadinejad may have started this vitriol against Israel for a variety of reasons but it has political capital for the Iranian government. That’s one of the few reasons why he may still endure as a politician in Iran, because he addresses this fundamental issue for the Iranian power play in the region: to rally people around the region who are not Shia but who learned after the execution of Saddam and the sectarian war in Iraq to distrust and dislike Shias and who continuously read anti-Shia literature and hear anti-Shia sermons from Riyadh to Beirut to Damascus. The one reason they may accept Iranian leadership is the Israel issue. So the Iranians, at the same time as they’re benefiting from the Shia card, don’t like to play it. They like it to be implicitly supporting them. But they would like to explicitly divert the region’s attention to the one issue that brings them together.
Therefore there is a method to the Iranian madness over Israel. Let me put it this way: Confronting Israel represents the potential for gaining an enormous amount of political capital and soft-power for an aspirant Middle Eastern power whose national and religious identity is not that of the Arab world. Iran needs a cause to lever in the Arab world. It needs a comeback to sectarianism.
Look at Iraq; the sectarian vocabulary was not invented by Iraq. It was invented by the other side. In Lebanon, it was not Hezbollah that proclaimed its war on Israel as a Shia power play. It was the Arab governments who put it that way. It was the Arab clerics who gave it that name. Iranians would like to focus this on Israel. So the two forces are competing to define the struggle. Money is going to Salafis because Salafis are the sharp edge of anti-Shiism. You can see that in Afghanistan, Pakistan and around the Arab world.
And the Iranians are matching that radicalism with an anti-Israeli radicalism of their own. These two sides are egging one another on, and we, in some ways, are collateral damage here, because this is essentially a play for the hearts and minds of the Arabs. It’s power politics on the world stage.
CROMARTIE: Thank you, professor. That was excellent.
Many of you know already know Jeffrey Goldberg. He’s the national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. Before that, he was with The New Yorker where he was the Middle East correspondent. His 2006 book, Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide, was hailed as one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Playboy magazine – and I’m sure there must be a funny story about why Playboy liked it. Jeffrey, thank you for agreeing to be a respondent.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Thank you, Michael.
Actually, I’ll tell you the funny story about the Playboy list, just as a palate cleanser. (Laughter.) A friend of mine calls me, very excited, and says, “Hey, your book’s been named one of the top five books of the year by Playboy.” So I run out of the house, drive over to the 7-Eleven in Tenleytown and grab the five copies of it on the shelf. When I go up to pay, this 20-year-old kid behind the counter looks at them, and says, “You know you have five copies of Playboy?” (Laughter.) And I said yeah, I do. He thought about it for a second and said, “You should really try Hustler.” (Laughter.) And I said, “No, no; I’m in Playboy.” He looks me up and down and says, “You’re in Playboy?” (Laughter.) I said, “Just give me the magazines, please.” (Laughter.) That was the highlight of the book tour, I think.
I’ll talk for a couple of minutes about some of things Vali has excellently described. By the way, talk about a book endorsement. If you haven’t read The Shia Revival, you should: It’s the single best volume on understanding this cataclysmic split in the Muslim world, and it explains a great deal about where we are today. And if you were just going to read one chapter, I would recommend the chapter on Khomeini. Vali’s a very spare and elegant writer – you can pay me later, by the way – (laughter) – but it’s a brilliant unpacking of why Khomeini is this truly radical figure in Muslim history.
I thought I would tell a couple of quick stories about encounters with very divergent types of Muslim radicals as a way of illustrating the points I want to make. The first is about an interview I did in June of 2000 with a person who’s been in the news the last two weeks. His name is Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, and he is the head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that’s responsible for the Mumbai massacre. I went to see him in Muridke, outside Lahore, which is the headquarters of Lashkar.
This interview has stayed in my mind for any number of reasons, as you’ll see. Lashkar, of course, was founded as a Sunni extremist or Salafist – actually a Takfiri – group, and we can go into the differentiation if you want later. The group was founded with terrestrial aims in mind, namely, the “liberation of Kashmir.” But by 2000, it is apparent in hindsight, the group, like many Salafist extremist groups, was moving away from mere terrestrial political concerns toward a more cosmological understanding of its role in history. And so Saeed and I had this very long conversation.
At the time I had just come back from Kashmir, from Muzzaffarabad, so we were talking about the jihad in Kashmir. But he didn’t want to talk about specifics; he wanted to talk about the role of jihad in Islam. People like Saeed tend to believe jihad – external jihad, not the internal jihad of self-improvement but actual warrior jihad – is almost the sixth pillar of Islam. As you know, Islam is built on five pillars: charity, Hajj, et cetera. He talked about jihad as a sixth pillar, and he gave me a long lecture about how Muslims don’t understand the proper place of killing in Islamic doctrine.
He quite obviously was a Takfiri, and I’ll give you a brief explanation of what that means. There’s Salafism, which is Wahhabism, the Saudi-inspired, overly literal reading of the Koran; it’s a very arid literalism that leads to extremism. Takfirism is like Salafism on steroids. Takfir means to declare others apostates and one of the many issues that separates Takfiris like bin Laden from Salafists, such as many of the people who run Saudi Arabia, is the obsession or preoccupation with killing Muslims who aren’t good Muslims in their eyes. Obviously, the embrace of murder-suicide – which is un-Islamic, against the rules of traditional Islam – is another manifestation of Takfirism.
Saeed was quite obviously a Takfiri, and I’ll just read you a couple things he said. We talked about the role of violence in Islam and the role of violence against infidels in particular. He said, “It’s morally wrong to kill even a non-Muslim” – I always love that “even” – “unless he’s hurting Islam.” But as the conversation went on, it became clear his definition of “hurting Islam” was evermore elastic. He explained, “America favors India. The Indians in America have captured the minds of the American leaders.” That made me think that in his mind, the “I” in AIPAC is for India, not Israel. He had this very elaborate conspiracy theory about that.
I pushed back a little back on this point. We talked about the Islamic justification for the murder of civilians, the civilians of your enemy, and he said, “In a democracy, you say the people choose their leaders. So the people are responsible for the actions of the leaders. Therefore, they are responsible for the aggression of their leaders.” In other words, the definition of who was a combatant, of who was the enemy, is growing to the point where it can take in children.
Then I asked him, finally, “Could you foresee, in any kind of circumstance, a better relationship with America?” He said – and this is the really striking part – “Our ideas are better. If you want to compete with us, we will compete with you. But our ideas are rooted in the truths of God. Therefore, our way will be triumphant. We do not plan to attack America with guns to make you see this. But I know that one day, the people of the world and the people of America will revert to Islam.” There’s a belief that all people are Muslim; we just don’t know it. So it’s not conversion, but reversion. “And then the people of America will know the truth of God.”
Let me jump ahead two years to a conversation with a very different sort of Muslim radical. It was in the summer of 2002 in Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley, and I was having lunch with a member of the Hezbollah Shura Council. The Shura Council is the religious and clerical elite of Hezbollah. The guy I was eating with was a very, very difficult man. I mean, most people in Hezbollah aren’t in it for the comedy but this guy was a real – whatever.
It was a very unpleasant conversation but also very illuminating. We were at a little restaurant where they have nice baba ghanoush – that, at least, I enjoyed. In the course of talking to him, I asked him a very naïve question, especially after 9/11; it had a naïve, very American assumption built into it.
I said, “What do you hope to gain after having a better relationship with the United States of America?” He laughed. It’s the only time he even cracked a smile. He said, “What makes you think we would want to have a better relationship with the United States of America?” I said, “Well, there are obvious political and material” – maybe not so much anymore – (chuckles) “benefits to having a relationship with the world’s sole remaining superpower.” He looked at me as if I had no grasp of the world I was living in. He said, “You just don’t understand. We don’t want to be friends with you; we want to beat you.”
So for obvious reasons, I’ve always linked these two conversations in my mind; thematically, they were very similar.
I should mention that on Friday at the Saban Forum in Washington, President Bush gave a speech, a summation of all of his accomplishments in the Middle East over the last eight years. One of the things he said was quite interesting. It sounded very wrong at first and then not quite so wrong when I thought about it. He made a reference to the gathering storm that America was facing in the 1980s, and he said: “The terrorist movement was growing in strength.” He cited the Marine barracks bombing, PanAm 103, which was, of course, conducted by Libya, and several other incidents.
I thought, “That’s very typical of the Bush administration, oversimplifying who the enemy is: There is no terrorist movement; there are terrorist movements.” Then I thought back to these two conversations, one with a Sunni extremist, the other with a Shia extremist. And I thought to myself: These men, if they met, would be sworn enemies. The Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan is – and I don’t want to do a whole taxonomy of Pakistani nut-job movements, and that’s a technical term, by the way – (laughter) – but Lashkar is a cousin of another group called the Sipah-e-Sahaba, another Takfiri organization, and the division of labor is that Lashkar kills Hindus and the Sipah-e-Sahaba kills Shia. Lashkar is violently anti-Shia as well, although they focus on India. These groups are wildly divergent and yet, these two interviews, because of the thematic similarities, stay in my mind.
A couple of observations I make out of that similarity: One is the utter surprise, from a historical perspective, that I feel in thinking about them. Not because of the Sunni extremism – the Sunni extremism is something you’d expect – but the cosmological extremism, the extremism that cannot be satiated by the ceding of a political point or territory, but only by the restoration of the caliphate, the complete elimination of Christian and Jewish influences in the Middle East and so on.
The surprise is that the Shia sounded like the Sunni, because this is ahistorical, and – I hope we can talk more about this – this is the special gift of Khomeini, who is a revolutionary figure in Shia history, who truly radicalized a movement of Islam that did not have this seed of radicalism the way the Sunni world always had it. As some of you know, Khomeini learned about revolutionary Islam, in many cases, from the texts of Sunni extremists, like Sayyid Qutb from Egypt, Maulana Maududi from Pakistan, and others – so the analytical shock is thinking you have two wildly divergent streams of Islam, but both have an extremism that seems more and more alike.
The second observation – and this goes into the foreign policy discussion I hope we will have – is an obvious one, and it is this: Our great debate in Washington now about the engagement of Iran – whether we should or shouldn’t – and the subsidiary discussion of, can we engage, in some way or another, the Taliban; in both cases, the conversation is unidirectional. It assumes Iran wants to be engaged. It assumes various forces in the Middle East, who are our adversaries, want this kind of engagement. This goes into the condescension contained in my question to the Hezbollah leader. The assumption that he would want a better relationship with us in the right conditions, I think, is an assumption we have to guard against as we move into this next phase, when we’re trying to figure out a way to talk to, among others, the Iranian leadership.
All of this points to a central question for me. It’s the question I’m trying to grapple with in my work. The question is this: If you could recommend to the Obama administration to work on only one issue of import in the next four years in the Muslim world, would it be the Takfiri challenge, meaning the Sunni extremist challenge, or the Twelver challenge? The Twelvers are – Vali, you’ll explain it better than I can – people who believe that the Twelfth Imam went into occultation 1,000 years ago and is coming back. These are Shia who are very millenarian, very apocalyptic, and who believe the Mahdi is coming back with Jesus. Obviously, Ahmadinejad is a huge Twelver. So the question is, when you have these two very, very complicated challenges – this challenge from Sunni extremism and this challenge from Shia radicalism – which one is more important to grapple with? I ask this question for the obvious reason that America, very often, is not good at doing even one thing at a time.
I have no certain answer to that myself. I tend to think the Takfiri challenge is ultimately a bigger problem for the United States than the Shia challenge. I also tend to think the Shia challenge is probably the one to work on because it’s more concrete; there’s something to be done with it. Let me use just one more example to frame a way to think of these two challenges: The challenge of Twelver extremism – of Shia extremism – is the challenge of the Iranian nuclear program, and asking yourself, can the world – can the West – live with an Iranian nuclear bomb?
The Takfiri challenge is also a nuclear challenge. It asks the question: What would be the consequences of a Takfiri takeover of Pakistan, and what would that mean for Pakistan’s nuclear program? Another way of asking the question is: Would you rather have Ahmadinejad in charge of a nuclear weapon, or would you rather have Lashkar-e-Taiba in charge of a nuclear weapon? You don’t have to answer the question now. (Laughter.)
I don’t know the answer. I do think – and maybe this is an issue of debate – that the Shia side of this equation is something that can be worked on. I’m not overly sanguine about it; I’m particularly not overly sanguine about it because I had this very bizarre breakfast a couple of months ago in New York with Ahmadinejad and several other journalists. I had never met him before, and going into it, I just assumed that he was crazy; I came out of it realizing he was just cunning, which is scarier, in some ways, than crazy.
I think his presentation was, from a Shia perspective, ahistorical, and I’ll give you a couple of quick lines from him, just to illustrate this point that he is as global and insatiable, in some ways, as bin Laden or Zawahiri: “We are here to give the news that the American empire has come to an end. This is helpful to the American politicians; it’s really a help to them so that they can change their behavior. They need to know the empire is coming to an end.” And he goes on, “Of course, you can see the signs very well. We see the news. Like a vehicle that’s about to drive off a cliff, if a traffic sign that says there’s a cliff here, the driver shouldn’t object to the traffic sign,” and he was equating himself to the traffic sign. And then he went on in this very triumphalist, arrogant discourse about the end of American power. He said, “Western countries believe that they can solve all issues with force and the power of weapons and economics. This is a big mistake. These tools belong to the past. The history of our region has no recollection of a foreign military group entering Afghanistan and leaving it victorious, or entering Iraq and leaving victorious. I’m surprised. What sign have they found that they think they – the Americans – are the exception?”
So he’s talking in enormous terminology, in a way we’re used to hearing Salafist extremists talk. Nevertheless, for a couple of reasons, I think that, unlike the very chaotic and diffuse Salafist threat, which manifests itself across the Muslim world and in Europe, the Shia threat has an address. It has concrete problems. The address, of course, is Tehran, and the concrete problems are problems of uranium enrichment. I also think – and I hope if you disagree, you’ll tell me – that in Shia history and theology, there are seeds of moderation. Because what we’re going through now, in the last 30 years, is a very ahistorical process in the Shia world.
We talk about who the leading clerics in the Sunni world are, and why they aren’t speaking up against Takfiris and Salafists, and that’s because many of the leading clerics are Salafists – you mentioned Qaradawi as a leading Sunni thinker. I think in the Shia world, you have much more of an antidote to extremism in the person of Ayatollah Sistani, who is really one of the most remarkable figures in the Muslim world right now and who stands as an antidote to some of the extremism that emanates from Tehran. I think there are fruitful areas to explore with Shia extremism that don’t exist on the Sunni extremist side.
Let me end by mentioning a couple of points that mitigate or undercut the whole idea that there’s anything we can do about these problems. This is about the need for American or Western humility.
We are, in many ways, collateral damage. There is an enormous crisis in one of the world’s great civilizations – the civilization of Islam – a crisis of identity. Islam, in many ways, has become its own enemy. The radicalism of the extremists is, generally speaking, not met by enthusiastic moderation. We saw yesterday in Mumbai a smallish demonstration of Muslims who are upset with what happened. But it’s really quite remarkable when you sit back and think about it, how the incredible savagery and cruelty that’s committed in the name of Islam is not met by a revolt of the silent majority of Muslims. There are things we can do, I think, to mitigate the damage the West suffers as Islam goes through this very long and very deep crisis, but I’m not confident we are sophisticated enough to influence the outcome of this cataclysmic debate in the Muslim world, and I’m not sure there’s much we can say or do to affect the outcome even if we had the sophistication to try.
Fighting Takfirism means dealing with Saudi Arabia and its export of Salafist, Wahhabi ideology. It’s very hard to convince the Saudis to do things when we’re essentially their client state, depending on them in ways they don’t depend on us. I don’t mean to be overly depressing at the end, but I think we’re in for a 20- or 30- or 50- or 100-year period in which we, essentially, stand by and watch the world of Islam, in all its complexity, with two mainstreams and other subsidiary streams, decide what it is. And the job of an American president, at a certain point, is to figure out ways to encourage moderation without drawing too much attention to our role. These are very, very hard things to do for Americans, who believe there’s a solution to every problem. What I’m suggesting is there might not be an American solution to the problems we are facing in the Middle East.
CROMARTIE: Thank you, Jeffrey, thank you very much.
E.J. DIONNE, THE WASHINGTON POST: Thank you both. Jeff can already title the first volume of his memoirs, “Lunching with” –
GOLDBERG: I actually want to call it “Touched by a Terrorist.” (Laughter.)
DIONNE: It’s heartwarming.
GOLDBERG: No, no, it’s a musical; I think I’ll have it as a musical – a barnyard musical, in fact.
DIONNE: I’d like to ask Professor Nasr three interrelated questions, so he can take this anywhere he wants.
I can’t resist asking: Is the main effect of the Iraq war a strengthening of Iran; and if yes, what does that mean, and how should that affect our way forward? If not, why not? I also wanted to talk more about what the rise of the Shia in Iraq means, by way of describing what the ideal should look like. You said the United States needs to look at a solution in Iraq not just as it affects the parties, but as it affects this entire conflict. Would you lay out what that deal might look like, or what the differences might be between those deals? And the last question –
CROMARTIE: E.J.’s a veteran; he gets all his questions in right away.
DIONNE: There may be no good answer to this question. Maybe it’s an un-humble question, in Jeff’s terms. But listening to you, I kept trying to think, what is more likely to serve America’s interests: heightened Shia-Sunni conflict or diminished Shia-Sunni conflict? And I suspect you can argue that either way.
GOLDBERG: E.J. also has questions for John Green, for tomorrow’s session. (Chuckles.) If you want to, you can get them out now.
NASR: I would say Iran has very clearly been strengthened. A number of immediate indices: Iran, before 2003, had no presence in an Arab country. Now, the southern part of one of the most important Arab countries is essentially an Iranian vassal, and Iran also has a significant amount of presence in the Kurdish north. So Iran has spread, if you would, into the Arab world. It now is a big player in Lebanon. Iran claimed to have made a huge favor to Egypt and Jordan and Syria, et cetera, by not putting forward its own presidential candidate in Lebanon. Iran now has an unofficial seat at the Arab-Israeli conflict. So Iran is inside the Arab world in a way that it wasn’t before.
Second, the fall of the Iraqi army in a sense removed the one military around the Gulf that could balance Iran – this is about hard power, not ideology. Those two armies balanced one another; without the Iraqi army – and Iraq will not have an army for another generation – either the United States will stay there and balance Iran, or there has to be some agreement with Iran in terms of its presence. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how many billions go into UAE’s army or Saudi’s army; they’re not the balance against Iran. The third is a matter of perception; the Iranians feel they’re bullish; they feel they’re on the rise. And their competitors feel they’re diminished, and much of power politics has to do with perception.
This third gain is an issue of soft power. Namely, the Shia communities around the region, particularly between 2003 and 2006, believed that what came out of Iraq, even if they disagreed with it completely, even if they didn’t support it, benefited them. There was a model that things can change: Sunnis can lose power; Shias can get more than what they have. The whole Lebanon thing was fueled by this. And it’s ongoing. In other words, I don’t think the sectarian war in Iraq has finished yet.
You mentioned Ayatollah Sistani; the Sistani factor is extremely important. There is no pan-Shiism at the political level. It’s not like under Khomeini; there is no one Shia movement. But there is one Shia pope now; this man has a following from Afghanistan to Pakistan to India, all the way across the Arab world. Sistani is, bar none, the most popular religious leader in Iran. A poll done in cooperation with USIP found him to be the most respected leader in Iran, secular or religious.
I know ayatollahs in Pakistan or India who are representative of other grand ayatollahs; they all have shifted to Sistani. I was in Saudi Arabia talking to the representative of one of the ayatollahs who, traditionally, was very powerful in eastern Saudi Arabia, and he said, “I’m the representative of Ayatollah Shirazi; nobody follows him anymore. Everybody’s a follower of Sistani.” The majority of Lebanese Shia follow Sistani and a fewer number, then, follow Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. The volume of money going to him is in the billions of dollars across the Muslim world. From Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, to Europe and India, Shia money goes to Sistani. If you’re religiously Shia, the chance of you following Sistani is like three-to-one.
He’s a conservative man. He’s kind of like Pope Benedict. You shouldn’t expect Pope Benedict to be talking about gay marriage and the ordination of women and abortion – he’s not going to do that. Sistani is conservative, but we keep moving the goal posts. First, we say we want somebody who’s pacifist, then when we get that, we say, no that’s not enough, he has to be liberal also. Sistani’s not; he’s a conservative. But he never opposed the American invasion of Iraq; he actually gave an oral fatwa to his followers not to resist it. He supported an election that was our doing. He supported a constitution that was our doing. He argued that Iraqi men, meaning Shias, should join the police force, the security force, when those things were boycotted by the Sunnis and that the Shias should participate in government. And if you looked at the Status-of-Forces Agreement, his answer was never knee-jerk we-won’t-touch-anything-the-Americans-do. He said, “So long as it’s transparent, it has everybody’s participation, and it protects Iraq’s national interests, I agree with it.”
So in the Shia world, there are two tendencies. You have this Iran-Hezbollah political phase, but where the Shias are going religiously is not down a jihadi line. I fully agree with everything Jeff said about talking to that Hezbollah guy and Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-e-Taiba, but where the difference lies is not with these generals and sergeants of Islamic activism; it’s in the population. The Shiites are, by and large, done with it; they had their revolution. Their mind is somewhere else. Look at the population in Iran – even the religious Shias are going with Sistani; they’re not following Khamenei; they’re not following Hassan Nasrallah. And that’s a big difference.
I think that’s an outcome of the Iraq war. It’s also one of the things that stumbles both Nasrallah and Khamenei: how to deal with the Sistani factor. Ahmadinejad is definitely a radical phenomenon but the religious establishment in Iran is more Sistani-oriented. Iranians are either secular, in which case they don’t care about Ahmadinejad, or they are religious, and those who are religious are, by and large, now pro-Sistani, and that makes it a much more complicated issue. But Iran is benefiting from all of this. I mean, there is a reason why every leader of Iran who goes to Iraq meets Sistani. And Sistani refused to meet Ahmadinejad. He just wouldn’t even answer his phone call.
So there is no doubt Iran is on the rise. We’ve got to think very hard about what a final deal in Iraq means, because it’s not all about the Shia-Sunni part. The Turkish-Kurdish part is also extremely important. A deal in Iraq cannot not reflect the balance of power in that region, in my opinion. In other words, we have to deal with facts. Any time we want to create our own facts on the ground, it’s going to be tough, and we’ve shown that we’ll fail at it. We cannot establish an Iraq based on parity between Shiites and Sunnis. We cannot establish an Iraq that essentially gives a lot more power back to the Sunnis; it won’t work because it’s not reflective of the power structure in the region, unless we are committed to downsizing Iran and restoring the Arabs to a pre-2003 status in the region, which would be a huge task involving massive military action.
I think the deal in Iraq has to reflect the reality that the Shias are a majority and that Iran has the upper hand. It’s not going to be easy to do because Jeff is correct: Dealing with Iran is not going to be easy. Also dealing with the Arabs in this is not going to be easy. But if we’re not even looking at it that way, and we see at as a very narrow deal, then it’s going to be difficult.
Now, this question of what benefits us in the region, whether these guys are fighting one another, is good – others have raised this. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think the Shia-Sunni rivalry is beneficial because it radicalizes both sides. We may even look at al-Qaeda and say, “Okay, they can bring down a building.” Or look at Mumbai, and say, “Is this all you can do?” But if we really take terrorism seriously, then any dynamic in the Muslim world that accentuates radicalism is not a good thing.
Of course there are many drivers for radicalism, and Jeff suggested some of them, but one driver, in my opinion, right now, is this geo-strategic power rivalry, the Iran-Arab rivalry. The intensification of that means more Ahmadinejads and more Hafiz Saeeds on both sides, because – in Iran, this is very clear – if you’re in a competition, politicians who speak that language have a comparative advantage. In other words, if Iran wants to play the radical card, it cannot have Khatami as president. It needs Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad has destroyed Iran’s economy; he’s highly unpopular among the broad population. There are even Iranian clerics who hate him; he’s persona non grata at home. No ayatollah worth his salt meets with him or his representatives. Even Khamenei has fears and trepidations about him.
But Ahmadinejad excels in one thing: the kind of rhetoric Jeff heard in New York gets him on t-shirts in Cairo. You don’t have to go far, just get in a taxicab in New York, and they will tell you how great he is. That is political capital, and it is only useful if you’re competing with the Sunnis. Now, we might alternatively argue for a divide-and-conquer strategy, but that would depend on whom you are dividing and whom you are trying to conquer. I think we’re trying to conquer the wrong side.
In the Arab world, we know that leaders are nice, and the population is, by and large, anti-American and more open to radical ideology. With the Shias, their leaders are not nice but the populations are, by and large, post-fundamentalist. They’ve done it; they’re over it. The Iranian population is where the Russians were in the 1970s, not where they were in 1916. The Arab population is in 1916, not the 1970s. What we’re doing is trying to go with the radical population in order to contain the moderate population. I fully agree with Jeff, it’s not easy; but in the long run, it would be better to find a way to bring Iran out from the cold or to get in at least a much better position with us and to leverage what we see as the less revolutionary side of Islam, which listens to Sistani and already had its revolution in the ’70s and would be able to stand up to this revolutionary side. The worst thing we could do is lump them together, get them to compete, and then get them both to oppose to us. There are also big differences, as Jeff mentioned, which are very important.
The Shiite forces are fighting over tangible things: territory and power. Also, they rule over people, which means, ultimately, they have to respond to popular dynamics. I don’t see how declining oil prices impact al-Qaeda; they’re not paying anybody’s salary. Maybe they lost some money in the market, but that’s about it. They’re not responsive to bread-and-butter issues.
GOLDBERG: Their investors are very bearish, actually.
NASR: They’re very bearish. But Iranians have to respond to the reality that their budget threshold is at $95 a barrel and now oil is at $40 a barrel. There is no domestic savings, and there is no international credit. So there is a hard meeting between ideology and economics in Iran, at the end of the day, or in Hezbollah, that doesn’t exist in the Sunni world. I think there’s a difference between Sunni and Shia radicalism; it’s the difference between the Soviet Union and the Red Army faction and the Red Brigades. The violent nihilism of radical Sunnis is cosmological, it’s unrealistic, et cetera. But with the Shias, the rubber meets the road; there are things these people want. It’s called power. It’s called influence. And you’re absolutely right, they don’t see any reason they need to talk to us, for two reasons, I think.
One is they will only be interested in relations with us when they can get what they want from us, which means when the discussion is about Iran’s regional power and not about the nuclear issue. That’s the conversation the Iranians would like to have, namely, their power over the Gulf, their power over Iraq, their position in Afghanistan, et cetera. The other issue is that, obviously, they’re going to run a hard bargain. The Shia clerics and the Shia establishment we’re dealing with all come from the bazaar background. These guys know how to hustle. Right now, Iran thinks they have us over a barrel but that we’re not softened enough yet.
All of this suggests we have to be a lot more sophisticated and nuanced about approaching what Jeff describes as a 30- or 40-year problem to understand where we can leverage what we have. But I think the Shia world right now is a problem that at least we can put in frameworks we are familiar with, like dealing with the Soviet Union, or China, or Vietnam, et cetera, whereas the Sunni one is much more difficult.
GOLDBERG: It’s true that the recession we’re experiencing now, while not excellent for journalism, is very, very useful in foreign policy, in particular, in the way we will deal with Iran. We will have them over a barrel, literally, if oil prices stay where they are. And Ahmadinejad is losing popularity by the day because he can’t fund the social programs that have made him so popular. So there is a silver lining to the utter collapse of the American economy. (Laughter.)
This is actually something President-elect Obama can exploit. George W. Bush has been, objectively speaking, the most pro-Shia president in American history. Granted, it’s not a title most American presidents have traditionally competed for, but by any measure, he has done more for Shia empowerment, and Shia religious empowerment in particular, just by the invasion, which opened up Najaf and Karbala, the pilgrimage cities, than any other American president. I know he didn’t set out to be the pro-Shia president. But in fact, we should have a better reputation among Shia than we do. I think a clever president can figure out a way to communicate that in some sophisticated and quiet way to the Iranians, saying, “Look, we can continue to battle you on these issues that might diminish Shia empowerment, or we can work together.”
I was in the Gulf recently, and it’s always been my assumption that the Jews are the most freaked out about the Iranian nuclear program, and justifiably so. But it’s nothing compared to the way Gulf Arabs feel about the Iranian nuclear program. It’s a real cataclysm for them, and of course, they wish, secretly, that Israel would just do the job for them so then they could criticize Israel in public and thank them in private. (Laughter.) They can vote on the U.N. resolution condemning Israel for bombing Iran and secretly be toasting –
NASR: There is an issue of access and knowledge, and that’s why I think the media’s role is very important. Most of our politicians learn their Islam from Arab leaders. Before he stepped down, Jacque Chirac said all Shias are thieves and thugs. Reporters asked him, “How do you know that?” He said, “That’s what they tell me when I go to the Middle East.” (Laughter.) An American president has not met a Shia leader for a very long time other than Nouri al Maliki, who doesn’t speak English. Access to the Shia world doesn’t exist for American politicians. That is why an American president wouldn’t look at the consequences of Iraq in the right way.
LAUREN GREEN, FOX NEWS: You talked about the conversion of Sunnis to Shia. Is that more from proselytizing or from politicizing? Is this coming from a revelation that it’s the truth or from a practical side that says this is where the political power is? Does that make a difference, or should it make a difference, to the USA in how they deal with the issue of Islam in the Middle East?
And Jeffrey, I wanted to ask you about your breakfast with Ahmadinejad. Did he give a laundry list of why America’s power is coming to end? Did he give reasons?
NASR: There is no evidence of proselytizing. I think there are two forces at work. One is clearly political: Hezbollah’s performance in 2006 and Iran’s current position. That’s partly why Ahmadinejad holds these kinds of conversations, making a bullish show of power. He’s very appealing. There have been symbolic conversions in Syria, the Arab world, et cetera, but we don’t know how lasting they are.
Historically, it’s happened before. If you looked at the Middle East before the last Crusades, Egypt was ruled by a Shia dynasty, the Fatimids. There were Shia communities in Tunisia, in Tyre, et cetera. And after the Fatimids lost the Crusades – it was the Sunni kings, Saladin, et cetera, who defeated Richard the Lionheart – those Shia communities evaporated. Particularly today, there’s a very direct connection between world power, worldly status and faith in Islam.
That’s exactly why this modern time period is so difficult for Muslims because they closely associate the health or truth of the faith with one’s status in the world. They see it as sign of God’s favor. Islam – particularly Sunni Islam – is unique in having been born almost immediately successful. It doesn’t have a history, like Judaism or Christianity does, of centuries of persecution. Rather, within a generation of the prophet, Muslims were in southern France. They had defeated three empires and pushed the Byzantines into Anatolia. Very early on they came to see this success as a miracle, as a sign of God’s favor on Islam and on them. That’s exactly why they have such difficulty being downsized since colonialism. They don’t have the internal mechanisms to deal with it. Shias do because they were persecuted much like Jews and Christians.
Therefore there is a disconnect. So now you have these Shias saying to Sunnis, “We can kick Israel, and we can confront America, and here are your own leaders” – aside from bin Laden, nobody’s showing power – and that’s appealing to a lot of Muslims. That’s exactly what worries Qaradawi. The other issue is there are something like 50,000 seminary students from places other than Iran studying in Qom. And at least 5,000 to 10,000 of these are from Sunni countries. They study in Qom, and they go back home. It’s like how a Muslim studies in America; it doesn’t mean you convert, but you learn a lot of things and then you go back home. In many places, the hard-line, intolerant, Salafist Sunnis are saying these Sunni clerics who come back from Iran are too Shia-like. They’ve adopted many little practices that are more Shia-like. So there are a lot of accusations of Shia proselytization, or Shia conversion, that may not be correct. It might be more of a case of Shiism seeping into Sunni practice.
The third reason goes to the question E.J. raised. If you looked at the level of debate within Shiism on modern issues, it’s much more sophisticated about the economy, about society, about democracy and political changes. The debates going on within the clerical establishment in Iran are more sophisticated. Salafi debates are very narrow; they are about how to perform ablutions and what is the proper way of dressing. It’s much more puritanical than sophisticated. For instance, when in Sunni countries people want to talk about the most sophisticated Muslim debate with democracy, they end up translating the works of the Iranian intellectual AbdolKarim Soroush or the work of dissident clerics in Iran. So when debates get complicated in the Sunni world they shift to Shia debates. Even in Lebanon, debates within the Hezbollah community are much more complex than they are among the Salafists.
GOLDBERG: Just a quick point, before we turn this into a big Shia love fest. Ahmadinejad does represent something truly radical and dangerous. I don’t think he’s completely an outlier in the Iranian stream of thought. That’s what makes it so difficult and dangerous. On your specific question, he cited his correct interpretation that we’re losing in Afghanistan, his incorrect interpretation that we’re losing in Iraq, and the economic downturn, he felt – these are the three things that he’s cited over and over again –
CROMARTIE: The downturn had not occurred when you –
GOLDBERG: This was right after Lehman Brothers; there was anxiety in the air about what was happening in the world. And oil was much higher two months ago, I guess. So he used those three as examples of why America was on the wane.
GREEN: He never stated anything about how it’s morally corrupt? Because that’s been a criticism coming from –
GOLDBERG: It wasn’t moral corruption on a your-women-go-around-in-bikinis level of moral corruption; it was economic corruption, political corruption. I asked him, “Is there anything you can do as president of Iran or any believer can do to expedite the return of the Mahdi,” the return of the twelfth imam? Because Ahmedinejad is like a Lubavitcher; he’s just waiting. In other ways, of course, he’s unlike a Lubavitcher, but he is really waiting and preparing for the day when the Mahdi returns. He gave a long, florid description about how we all have to treat each other with kindness, and we can’t make money, and that the object of our desire should be human love, et cetera, and he went on in that vein for six or eight minutes. So yes, he has this implicit criticism of American materialism.
NASR: It’s interesting. He cannot have that moralist argument because he’s president of a country in which there’s a lot of liberal activity. And that’s what makes it difficult –
GOLDBERG: We didn’t hear much about that.
NASR: It’s part of Iran’s reality now. There is a live-and-let-live zone for the middle class and upper class that is quite large, so long as they don’t cross certain red lines. But this show of attention toward the Mahdi is very interesting. All Shia are millenarian in some ways but not everybody’s expectant. There are two issues. One is that in recent years, this cult of the hidden imam in Iran has become much more popular at the folk level. There are phone cards people buy to call the hidden imam, and actually, there was a controversy because Ahmadinejad –
GOLDBERG: That’s a good business deal to get into, by the way.
NASR: Yeah, I know, he made money off of that. (Laughter.) The other interesting issue is that when the hidden imam went into hiding, the Shia clerics became, in his absence, his representatives on the Earth. So Shias technically have a living imam, who is in hiding, and that’s why they have this authority. Ahmadinejad’s argument is now that Iran has an Islamic government, it no longer needs clerics, that the Islamic Republic of Iran will be the representative of the hidden imam. He’s very anti-clerical; in fact, in Iran they refer to him as the Luther, not in the sense of being Martin but in the sense of being anti-clerical.
But there is another reason why he plays the hidden imam card very aggressively. When he saw the hidden imam, supposedly at the United Nations, he saw light and everybody made fun of him. This all came out when a CD appeared in Iran in which he was talking to a very senior ayatollah, describing this to him. What was lost in that story was here is a layman telling a very senior ayatollah, “I saw the hidden imam and you didn’t.” Even the Supreme Leader of Iran, when he was president as a cleric, gave many talks at the United Nations; he didn’t see the hidden imam. So Ahmadinejad was basically claiming the authority of the hidden imam for the presidency of Iran. There is a very dangerous lay movement situated in the Revolutionary Guard, with second generation hard-liners like Ahmadinejad who at some level are trying to take over power in Iran. This rhetoric plays into that competition.
MIKE ALLEN, THE POLITICO: Professor, thank you for your helpful taxonomy of the Middle East 2.0. What is your view of the degree to which President-elect Obama shares that view, judging by his appointments and his words so far?
NASR: We still have to see what kind of policy will come forward. I think we have a lot more discussion in the public sphere right now about Afghanistan, but only in the context of troop numbers and timelines, and then also, a lot of emphasis on the Arab-Israeli issue. As I said in my talk, I take a bit of a different tack on that. I think the Arab-Israeli conflict is an extremely important conflict. It matters a lot to America’s image in the Muslim world; it matters a lot to the problems we’re dealing with, but I don’t see it as a solution to the larger issues we’ve seen.
At some level, we have to have much more of a public discussion, and a policy-making discussion, about how we are going to tackle the roots of the issue, which I think is the balance-of-power issue in the region. But I don’t have any gauge about what the thinking inside the Obama team is.
ALLEN: What do you think of the president-elect’s national security appointments so far?
NASR: They’re extremely competent people. I think it comes down to which issues get discussed and how they get discussed. I think it’s always the case, including during the Bush period, that a lot of these issues get framed in the public’s mind and in the media in terms of our goals, our challenges, and what we are trying to solve. One of the challenges in the coming months is to break out of that. We’ve pigeonholed ourselves into thinking of these issues only in terms of dealing with conflict militarily, in these specific zones. So I think a lot depends on how policy forums discuss this inside the coming administration. But, partly, the discussion has to happen in the public arena as well.
GOLDBERG: I’m waiting for the Kissinger or Kissinger-style thinker to emerge, to say in this coming administration, “Why are we friends with the Sunnis and enemies of the Shia? Why don’t we just flip the script and make Tehran and Baghdad our friends and tell Riyadh, which is indirectly responsible for our Salafist terrorism problem, to take a hike?” If you thought like Kissinger, you would say, “What best serves America’s interests? If Iran and Iraq control 40 percent of the world’s oil together, then we get the oil. And we have created conditions for the rise of the Shia. Okay, King Abdullah in Jordan doesn’t like this and the Egyptians don’t like it and the Saudis don’t like it, but they’ve been headaches for years.”
CROMARTIE: You’re saying that on the record, so maybe –
GOLDBERG: Right now, it’s at the level of an interesting op-ed, but I think somebody eventually is going to ask in the National Security Council: How do we manipulate this so we ally ourselves with the rising Shia rather than the waning Sunnis?
MATTHEW CONTINETTI, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: One major problem with this kind of rapprochement with Iran is the Iranian regime, which seems these days not to be giving many signals that it’s interested in such a rapprochement.
My question, Professor, is that so much of what we discuss about the Shia revivalists is being driven by that Iranian regime and yet we kind of have two different pictures of that emerging from this discussion, which seem to me to be in conflict. One the one hand, you have this idea of a very bullish Iran, with Ahmadinejad telling a group of reporters that the era of American power is over, a sense of new Iranian influence in Iraq and the region at large. On the other hand you have, as you’ve mentioned, the Iranian president’s declining domestic popularity and the declining popularity of the regime itself among Iranians, of whom, as you say, perhaps the majority or even plurality are not as fundamentalist as the leadership. You also have this huge demographic issue emerging in Iran, with all these young people who are much more interested in joining the world, being integrated in the world order, than they are in participating in this revolutionary game their leaders have been playing for the past three decades. You have the ongoing collapse of the Iranian economy, inflation rates through the roof, and the decline in the price of oil draining government coffers and even in Iraq I would argue their influence has been somewhat overstated.
When the SOFA was passed and validated by the Iraqi government over Iranian objections, Sadr, I believe, was one of those seminarians remaining in Iran. His power seems to have been neutered; and of course his militia was destroyed by the Maliki and Hakim forces during the battle of Basra.
So which Iran is it? I guess I would frame the question this way: How do you see the future of the Iranian regime over the next 10 or 20 years? To put it in another context, when we talk about China, I think most people agree: The Chinese regime is going to have to change somehow in the next two decades; we don’t really know how it’s going to change. How do you see the Iranian regime changing?
NASR: First of all in Iraq I wouldn’t get too hopeful. Things look much better, but if Afghanistan is any indication, this is a long story. The Pakistanis waited six or seven years – so I wouldn’t write off Sadr at this point.
But you’re right. It’s not a given that negotiations with Iran will be successful. The Iranian regime does have serious domestic vulnerabilities; it has points of leverage, and it has points of weakness. There is serious political competition and debate within Iran. We have often hoped the Iran problem would solve itself before we ever had to engage with it. We hoped Iraq would undo it, or that the economy will undo it. It’s not a given that there is a clear path to negotiation now.
I think the most important value of diplomatic engagement with Iran is to throw the Iranian calculation off its mark. The Iranians have calculated that the U.S. doesn’t want to talk to them. All of their policies have been built on certain assumptions going forward, particularly within the Ahmadinejad faction. And we haven’t done much to try to disturb that. I think an engagement, if it happens, will mess up the Iranian approach and open up fissures within the regime and also among leaders inside the regime.
It’s very instructive that the former Iranian president Rafsanjani has said a number of times, “Put a deal on the table the regime cannot technically say no to.” Many Iranian liberals say, “Put a deal on the table that would separate the regime from its population.” Yes, the population is West-loving, but it’s also very nationalistic. Ultimately, I think the Iranians want to talk. They are, right now, desperate to talk. They have come out of the gate in a very rapid way; they are trying to vet the new administration about talking to Iran. They were right – Joe Biden was right – they’re going to test the United States but they’re testing it in a very different way. The Iranian vice-president, Ahmadinejad’s vice president, has come out and said openly, “We welcome transparent talks with the Obama administration.”
But talking doesn’t mean you already see an end result. The Iranians see talking with the United States as a process that will ultimately change the U.S.’s position vis-à-vis Iran. We see the talks – if they happen – as a quick means of getting the things we want.
I wouldn’t be too thrown off by the posture. There is a style in Iranian language of talking about the West. There is a style in America’s approach to Iran. If and when they actually talk, they will have to talk about one another differently. There will have to be a period of flirtation. The United States sent serious signals to China for about two years before it engaged them. It began with actually referring to China by its name, which is one of the things the Iranians constantly demand. There has to be a period of selling the policy at home, which means both governments have to back away from the way in which they characterize one another. A lot of things have to happen that haven’t happened, and which, if they did happen, could be quickly undone.
So all the points you raise are very germane. About a change of regime in Iran, it can happen. But I take the view that Iran is not going to be more stable or unstable than any other dictatorial regime in the region. This is a region with an enormous amount of authoritarian resilience. Let’s not divert our attention by vesting hope in change inside Iran. We have to take it that Ahmadinejad may go, and somebody else may come, but it may not really change the situation in a significant way. Therefore, we shouldn’t be distracted with that. If the Iranian regime falls apart – It would be excellent if you had a very different phase rising in Iran, but ultimately we have to deal with the regime we’re confronting today because the set of issues we’re dealing with are happening right now. We can’t wait five years to deal with the nuclear issue, with the terrorism issue, or with Iranians ruling the region.
I think we have to take it as it is. I see many, many weak points for this regime, including the economy, including the demography but also Ahmadinejad’s group’s calculation that everything will be settled in the short run. The regime-change issues will come in the medium to long run. Iran is eager to establish its footprint – on the nuclear issue and everything else – within an 18-month to two-year time period, during which time they think they can hold it together.
EVE CONANT, NEWSWEEK: I was curious about soft power and if the Iranians may be learning from how the U.S. has employed soft power in other countries to bolster its image. Are there ways in which – for all of their anti-Western rhetoric – the Iranians are using U.S. techniques, both to encourage Shias to be more optimistic and also perhaps for Sunnis? You said they’re not quite proselytizing, but are there little ways in which they’re pursuing this rise such as – I’m just thinking out loud, but giving scholarships to Sunnis to travel home? Or with women in urban centers, saying you’ll have more inheritance in the Shia system than you would in the Sunni system?
Are there little ways in which they’re using women’s rights or religion that mirror the way the U.S. has tried to export its ideas of democracy and success in other countries? So not quite Coca-Cola and jeans; but are ways that they have seen the U.S. has failed that they are trying not to employ?
NASR: Very good question. The simple answer to the last part is no. For a variety of reasons, they are not doing what we do, which is preach values. Bringing students home is a whole different issue and a lot of times it’s done through seminaries themselves, which are quite wealthy; they are not government run. But there is a side to Iranian soft power that is very important, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that’s trade. The volume of trade between Iran and Iraq is over $2 billion. When I was in Basra in June, we were going around with Iraqi soldiers, and they gave a nonstop harangue against Iran: “Iran, they did this, they did that, they were malicious here,” et cetera. But when we were tired, they said, “Would you would like some watermelons?” We asked, “Where do the watermelons come from?” Iran, of course, was the answer – the best watermelon is from Iran. And everything in the shops was Iranian. So at one level they complain about militias, et cetera, but the reality is that the bazaar and commerce runs on Iran.
It’s the same in Herat; it’s the same even in Azerbaijan and Dubai. There’s a huge Iranian business footprint. Stuart Levey of the U.S. Treasury Department is trying to shut down that trading and business with Iran in Dubai, but we’re only engaging at that single-country level when, in fact, it’s much bigger. With the Shias, it’s just a matter of cultural affinity. Shias everywhere look at Iran as the holy country. I remember a Pakistani Shia doctor told me that during the Iran-Iraq war, he went and worked at the front. He was very clear: He wouldn’t go and fight in any other war or provide medical services, but he would go to Iran. So that is automatic. Iran doesn’t have to do anything for that.
Elsewhere, there are two things. One is the whole issue of creating an aura of power. Iran is very, very keen on showing an aura of power – Hezbollah as well. Like what Jeff was saying: standing there and talking cavalierly about the decline of American global power. This bullishness has an appeal and Iran clearly pumps it and plays it. They are much more eager to talk secretly than talk publicly. Everybody who has dealt with Iran is very clear that their one demand in coming to table with the United States is that they come as equals. They often say, “Don’t put us in the category of these other countries; they’re not in the same league. Treat us as a great power, and then we’ll come to the table.” That’s not just a sense of their vanity; it also plays well on the street. That creates certain respect for them.
The other thing is riding the anti-American way. They’re very cognizant there’s a lot of unpopularity with the United States. There’s a rejectionist mood in the region. They are playing into that, and it has paid them a great deal of dividend. It’s very clear that Iranians are competing aggressively with al-Qaeda for who is the main anti-American force in the region. That stance, in many quarters in the Muslim world, does translate into a sympathy and support for Iran.
But no, the Iranians have not made tremendous amount of investment outside of southern Iraq or western Afghanistan in institutions that promote soft power such as cultural centers, community centers, et cetera. That you see in southern Iraq. There they pay money to every village leader, every municipal authority, every person. They’ve built hospitals; they’ve built schools; they’ve built whole varieties of things. Then in Syria, they have some mosques and other things they’ve built but their institutional footprint in much of the Muslim world outside of this immediate neighborhood is very thin. And as a consequence, they put a lot more emphasis on image rather than institutions.
GOLDBERG: The reality today is their main export remains terrorism. Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the various ways they try to destabilize the Gulf and on and on and on. It’s important not to forget what they are doing right now. Jordanian intelligence people talk about Iran as the octopus, with seven or eight tentacles in different parts of the Sunni world, and that they can use those tentacles to destabilize areas. So they are very good at exporting hard power as well, I think, and that’s their particular expertise at the moment.
SALLY QUINN, THE WASHINGTON POST: I’m confused about the whole Israel-Palestine issue. I was surprised when you said everyone thinks that’s the main issue and it’s not, and then you went on to say Iran likes to exacerbate this problem, with Hamas and Hezbollah, because it binds Arabs in the region together. You said you felt – if I’m getting this right – that if that problem went away, there would still be a problem.
I don’t understand that because it seems to me this is such a divisive issue, and it inflames the Arab world and the Muslim world everywhere you go. In the places I’ve been, they’ll say, “The Israelis this or the Israelis that, and the Americans are backing the Israelis.” I don’t see how that problem is not as important now because it’s still there, it’s not resolved, and it enrages people.
There was a story yesterday in The New York Times about Jerusalem and how the Israelis have moved in and thrown people out of their houses, and you can just imagine the terrorists going berserk, saying “We’re going to use this.” How do you solve the problem? How do you diminish that issue without solving it? Until that goes away, how is that not going to be the big sticking point in trying to negotiate peace with any of these countries, whether it’s Iran or the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Syrians – everyone.
NASR: It’s a very good point. It’s an extremely important issue at the emotional level across the Muslim world. There is no doubt about it. But it’s no longer the only issue. Imagine if tomorrow there is actually a peace deal, and it’s done. That wouldn’t change the fact of, as Jeff mentioned, fear among Arabs about Iranian power in the Gulf. The Iranian power in the Gulf is based on simple facts. It’s about Iran’s investment in hard power, as Jeff said, including militias in southern Iraq. It’s about Iran’s military capability in the Gulf, and it’s about nuclear investment. The Arab-Israeli issue – the Palestinian issue – will not solve Saudi Arabia’s power deficit. It will not take away Iran’s hard power in the region. The Saudis care about Iran a lot more than the Palestinians, in reality, because the Palestinian issue is an emotional issue. It does impact public opinion; it does have a great deal of bearing on their status and image but it’s not of vital national interest to Saudi Arabia. The vital national interest to Saudi Arabia is what’s happening in Iraq and what’s happening with Iran.
For the Pakistanis, it’s about Afghanistan. So we have to separate where and how the Palestinian issue matters from the other issues. I think part of the reason the Palestinian issue has become much more difficult, intractable and hotter right now is that it has become a front for this other power struggle to manifest itself, with Iranians supporting Hezbollah and Hamas and opposing a peace process and using the Arab-Israeli issue to undermine the Arab governments they see as rivals. Saudi behavior is also guided by trying to exclude the Iranians and kick them out. Yes, if there was a peace process, a real peace process, it would strengthen the hand of the Arabs and weaken Iran by denying it that one arena. But it will not make that other more important issue, about the balance of power in this region, go away. That is the fundamental issue.
Secondly, the Arab governments are not going to come out of the Arab-Israeli issue looking good unless the peace actually gives them an aura of power. I think the Iranians are calculating that’s not going to happen, that this issue is too difficult and messy and that in the foreseeable future, there is not going to be a real, viable peace, one acceptable to the Arab Street, or a peace that would make the Arab leaders look as if they had delivered the impossible. I think, realistically, we’re not going to solve this problem in the near term. And even if we did, we would still have the balance-of-power issue in the region.
That’s not to say the Arab-Israeli issue is not important. That’s not what I meant by any means. It’s an incredibly important issue, particularly for America’s image and for the mood on the Arab Street. But you have to put everything in the right perspective. If we go into the next two years thinking this issue is going to solve everything, then, first of all, we are setting ourselves up for failure because we are going to put world attention on a conflict we can’t deliver. Secondly, even if we solve it, we’ll be disappointed because we’ll realize it was a very important arena in which a large fight was happening and that that larger fight will not end just because this ends.
QUINN: Isn’t it then to their advantage – the Iranians and the Saudis and all of the people in that region – to keep the war going between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
NASR: Absolutely. Let me be cynical here for a minute. If you are the Arab governments around Israel, and you depend heavily on security rent directly associated with the Arab-Israeli issue, and your whole power and importance and relevance to Washington depends on the Arab-Israeli issue, what does a solution do for you? If tomorrow Hamas disappears and Mahmoud Abbas signs a perfect peace with Israel, what does that do to Egypt and Jordan? What is the next step for those regimes past this conflict? Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think the answer is obvious to them.
Everybody on the Arab side is interested in certain movement here. But the solution is not easy and that’s exactly why these governments don’t provide the Palestinians with the political cover they need to make the critical compromises that are absolutely essential for a deal. And that’s exactly what the Iranians are banking on.
One of the Kissingerian moments here is to say, “We have to do something about this. We need to have an envoy; we need to work with the Palestinians and Israelis; we need to address Israel’s security problem; we need to deal with the Hamas issue – all of these things. But maybe you need to deal with these other problems frontally because you cannot approach the most intractable, longest running problem in the region, which we haven’t managed to solve for 50 years, for which I don’t think a solution is in the cards, as a solution to these other larger problems. Maybe it’s easier to deal with Iraq, Iran – all of these other issues – in a frontal manner, whatever way that is, rather than try to go through the Arab-Israel issue.”
GOLDGBERG: The Jewish-Muslim rivalry, in the past hundred years, is nothing compared to the Shia-Sunni rivalry of the past 1,000 years.
NASR: Or the Iranian-Arab war –
GOLDBERG: It might be a negative to work on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, but it might be a positive, however, to work on the Syrian-Israel dispute –
NASR: Because that goes to the power politics in the region, I suppose.
GOLDBERG: The emphasis should be on Syria right now, for any number of reasons, including the idea that Iran has one Arab ally, and that’s Syria. Working on Syria would be incredibly useful, and Syria has a demand that can be met. It doesn’t have a nihilist-Salafist demand; it wants the Golan Heights. And Israel has been, I’d say, more progressive on this issue than the Bush administration. Israel has been negotiating with Syria; America won’t talk to Syria right now. I think this issue is one of those classic issues in which it’s in the interest of many parties to keep the conflict alive.
CARL CANNON, READER’S DIGEST: Jeff said at his breakfast with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the Iranian president was very dismissive of America. It seems to me he’s trying to shape the narrative. He doesn’t want the United States to get credit for the establishment of a Shia majority democracy in Iraq. He wants Iran to get the credit. But Iran couldn’t take a mile of Iraqi territory during their great war, and that makes me think there’s a tangible reason for engaging Iran: to provide a forum for the United States to have a counter-narrative about Iraq and Iran, to say the United States did this, and no other country could have done it. Could both of you comment on that?
GOLDBERG: It’s interesting when you really examine what’s happened in the last 20 years – Khomeini could not defeat Saddam Hussein. It was his number one goal; he sacrificed I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of Iranian children to the cause as human minesweepers. He could not win. In 1988, he said he’d have to make peace, and that the peace was a poison chalice. This shows you how clever the Iranian empire is, the Persian empire is. It could not defeat Saddam Hussein so it manipulated the United States into removing its enemy.
Think about it in those terms. The U.S. did for Iran what Iran could not do for itself. And, yes, you’ve raised an interesting way of looking at it: If we spent all these American lives and a trillion dollars to remove Saddam, we might as well get a little credit for it in the Shia world. And maybe you’re right; maybe Ahmadinejad is arguing preemptively, saying, “Don’t think that you guys did us this favor.”
NASR: But for us to do what you’re saying, and what Jeff is suggesting, you have to first acknowledge there has been a shift in the balance of power, before you can take credit for it, and we refuse to do that.
BYRON YORK, NATIONAL REVIEW: We haven’t talked yet about Muslims in America. According to this report, which I was just leafing through, you have about a million-and-a-half adult Muslims in America, about 65 percent foreign born, 50 percent Sunni. The question is, with this big crisis in the Islamic world, is that playing out, especially if it gets worse, in the domestic American Muslim population? And how do they try to influence the United States government through lobbying and other ways?
NASR: We still have to learn a lot more about the community. By and large, its profile is very different from the rest of the Muslim world; it’s much more middle class. It’s much more professional and educated than the average Muslim population, whether you’re comparing with Muslims in Europe or Muslims in the Muslim world. There is a lot of religious debate as to whether there should be, in fact, an Islamic jurisprudence that is for America or Europe or whether Muslims here are outposts of empire and their issues should be the issues of the Middle East. This debate is still ongoing. Muslims in America have obviously integrated much better than most other Western Muslim communities have. There is far more presence in professional circles, et cetera. It’s not organized politically yet; it began doing so in recent elections but its organization is much more secular than religious. In other words, there is much more Arab-American and Iranian-American involvement in the political process than religious involvement.
They are not organized around pushing religious issues but around pushing participation. Issues that are peak projects are visas or typical, if you would, minority issues about equality. There is an interesting debate going on about the impact of the Patriot Act and 9/11. There are those who argue there has been an opting out of mainstream American society and an increased mosque attendance. There are others who disagree and say that the trend lines are toward integration, largely because of the socioeconomic context in which the Muslims are living.
GOLDBERG: In my own hierarchy of problems facing the U.S., the American Muslim population is not one of them. Yes, there has been some fundraising and activities for Hamas and other groups but American Islam can be seen, perhaps, as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. In America, there is the space and safety – and safety is an important part of it – for Muslims to explore dangerous concepts related to the marriage of modernity and Islam. That’s what I hope America has become to some degree – a place where liberal Muslim scholars can think without fear of having their heads chopped off.
MARK KATKOV, CBS NEWS: My question is about U.S. foreign policy in the next few years. One of the things that hasn’t received a lot of attention is the Bush administration’s program of democracy promotion in the Muslim world. During the Cold War, it had outsized results in Asia, Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union. About half-a-billion dollars has been spent in the last eight years, more or less. Do you see any point to continuing it? Is it going to show benefits?
NASR: I think standing for democracy, advocating for democracy, is very important and that the United States should not abandon that goal. I don’t think we should approach democracy promotion in the short run as a solution to the problems we have – in other words, not to attach it to an American agenda. That has been counterproductive.
But we also have to look at lessons learned, namely that we should look at democracy promotion not as pushing for a single election – Hamas or whatever else. It is not about elections; it’s about trying to change the laws. We should look at what the European Union did with Turkey inadvertently – not because they were promoting democracy, but they basically put relationships with Turkey on the condition that Turkey begin to look like Europe, meaning it cannot have the military in power, that it must have regular elections, that it must change its laws – not just Islamic laws – about adultery. Everything has to change, and Turkey has to basically become much more pluralistic and tolerate minorities like the Kurds. I think we should approach Egypt that way. We should say, “We’re giving you $15 billion a year; we want three laws changed every year.” Forget about elections. Let’s say an election is at the end of the tunnel.
So there are lessons learned, and I don’t think we shouldn’t go from being totally hot on democracy and to being totally cold, saying, “It didn’t work.” There is a lot to do. In Pakistan, for example, we could have done a lot more than what we did, and we still can. There are a lot of low-hanging fruits, and I would say the Arab world actually is not the place to go. That’s one big mistake with the Bush administration’s democracy-promotion policies. You shouldn’t go where you have the most entrenched dictatorship, the most hostility to democracy, the least amount of experience with democracy. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in the Muslim world. There are more elections in Bangladesh and Pakistan than in Egypt.
There is a political party called the Pakistan People’s Party, which you can actually say is a party. You can look at Malaysia or Indonesia. We have to go where we can get the biggest bang for the buck, establish success cases, advertise those, and try to put them on the forefront of thinking in the United States and the Muslim world. Again, it’s a Kissingerian way of thinking about it. We shouldn’t think tactically, we should have a grand strategy about how we can move these societies in the right direction. And I would say we should continue in the right way.
GOLDBERG: There is this huge, unexamined contradiction – unexamined by President Bush at least in his speech last Friday, in which he talked about the importance of democracy as the ultimate antidote to terror and extremism. Five minutes later, he talked about some of the setbacks we’ve faced in the Arab world and the rise of Hamas. Now, the rise of Hamas came about, in part, because of our democracy-promotion efforts. And he didn’t grapple with that for the obvious reason that there’s nothing really to grapple with.
It’s apparent that we advocated for an election in Gaza that resulted in the empowerment of Hamas. To me it’s one of the signal moments in the misfire of our democracy-promotion efforts. There’s the great scene in Elisabeth Bumiller’s book when Condi is on her Stairmaster or something watching CNN, and CNN is reporting Hamas is winning the election, and she said to someone in the room, “That can’t be right.” Well, it didn’t conform to the schematic, but it was in fact right.
Now there is probably too much hesitation to push this agenda. What you have to do is two things at once. You’ve got export civil society ideas. You’ve got to export the ideas of free press and an independent judiciary and all of the manifestations of civil society that make a country truly democratic. But from a practical, pragmatic perspective, you’ve got to look at the place you’re dealing with and ask yourself, “If there is an election tomorrow in this place, will we get a Muslim Brotherhood government? Will we get a Salafist-influenced government?” And if they answer is yes, then maybe you shouldn’t be pushing for an election.
CATHY GROSSMAN, USA TODAY: Both of you gentlemen have talked about nuance and sophistication and even paradigm shifts – completely changing how we view this area and this conflict. Do you think the cast of characters that’s going to be running the next administration – Obama, Clinton – are actually capable of doing that? I don’t think the American people do nuance very well.
I have a second question as well. I had the sense you were going to give the second half of your talk about al-Qaeda, and we haven’t really talked much about that. And I’d like to hear more from you about al-Qaeda and where its role is in this.
GOLDBERG: I can deal with that first part and then, Vali, you could give a speech on al-Qaeda.
CROMARTIE: (Inaudible, cross talk) – talking about the al-Qaeda part.
GOLDBERG: No, I’m not going to talk about al-Qaeda; he can talk about al-Qaeda.
They are very pragmatic people – the people who have been put in, so far, in the national security cabinet and Obama himself. Now that I’ve criticized the democracy promotion effort, I would hope these guys aren’t so pragmatic. We swing wildly in our foreign policy between Scowcroftian realism and Wolfowitzian idealism. We’re obviously on the Scowcroft swing right now, and I hope we don’t become so Scowcroftian that we forget the ultimate solution really is freedom. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to get there, not in four years but in 50 or 75 years.
I worry for various reasons that there could be, understandably, a level of timidity in the way the next administration deals with the Middle East. I worry about the promotion of civil of society as something that will fall by the wayside –
GROSSMAN: It’s very hard for me to picture how they are going to sell the American people that the Israeli-Palestine conflict, which has been front and center for decades now, is not going to be the beyond all.
GOLDBERG: First of all, I don’t think the American people really care that much about it, especially right now, if you’re worried about the economy. One of the things the Bush administration didn’t do very well is explain things as they went along. The next administration could explain, “For the following eight reasons, we don’t think the time is right to make a big, final push on Palestinian-Israeli peace. Instead, we believe we should work on the Syrian-Israeli peace track.” If you explain these things, I don’t think it’s that hard. So I don’t worry about competence in the next administration; I worry about bravery, I guess, more than pragmatism.
NASR: I think, actually, we’re advertising the opposite and that’s going to be very dangerous for us.
But very quickly about al-Qaeda. There’s so much more awareness, but I would say there is no doubt we’re dealing with a wave of terrorism connected to a very specific ideology. It’s not the first time we’ve done it, historically. There are parallels in what happened with communism at its heyday, post-Cuba, and the varieties of communist terrorism that swept Latin America, Europe, et cetera. Right now, we’re in the middle of it. It’s a wave that ultimately will have to exhaust itself, and I think it will.
It’s connected to a number of things. One is there is manpower, and there are assets left over from the war in Afghanistan. Everybody from bin Laden down, these are people who fought in that war and went through training camps. The training camps continued throughout the 1990s, so you’re still dealing with a lot of personnel trained in that war that will never – There was never a plan to reabsorb them in their economies. The best is the story of bin Laden himself, who went back to Jeddah and his brother showed him a desk to get to work. After years in Afghanistan, he just could not fit in. He went back to what he knew best, and they all found their way to Afghanistan, sort of the Rambo scenario.
Two, Afghanistan was very important because it was the first war of liberation in which Islamist fundamentalism won. I like to think of Khomeini as the Lenin of Islamic revolution, of the whole Islamic ideology. And I think of the Afghan mujahedeen as being the Che Guevara phase of communism. And they won. They defeated a superpower. They believed they defeated a superpower. And this sort of liberation hasn’t been defeated. Even in Iraq it hasn’t been defeated. In the Muslim world, the argument is that ultimately the insurgents got the United States to come to the table. And until the day it is defeated somewhere – this Islamic liberation model that came out of the Afghan jihad – there will be a certain amount of pizzazz and momentum in it. It also has relevance to today’s Muslim world because in this region, for reasons I was mentioning, the breakdown in the balance of power has set off insurgencies.
There are ongoing insurgencies trying to restore power to those who have lost it: the Pashtuns and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Sunnis in Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s model of fighting against occupation is a successful one, with assets, knowledge, capability, and money, which, out of the box, could be implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, you have the model, you have the manpower and you have arenas. So it’s not a coincidence that there is the upsurge.
Thirdly, in places like Europe and the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, the whole Salafi underbelly of al-Qaeda fits into an existing identity crisis. Salafism at its core, if you put aside the violence, is culture-less Islam. It’s so puritanical that it believes it is Islam divorced of any cultural context. That’s what Wahhabism was when it emerged in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century. It wanted to undo every single compromise Islam had made with any culture it had met. So you take Islam back to its imagined, pure origin when it didn’t connect with anything human. Now that makes it a very rigid, hard Islam. But it’s attractive to people who have no identity.
So if you are an Algerian, third generation born in France, you’re not Algerian anymore – you’ve never seen the mother country. You’re not French either. What are you? Salafism provides this virtual community. If you were born in a Palestinian camp, in Nahr al Bared, you’ve never been to Palestine but you’re not Lebanese either. As a result, what are you? You are a member of this community. So there’s a difference between those al-Qaeda guys in Nahr al Bared and the Palestinians in Hamas. Salafism is attractive. Look at somebody like Zacarias Moussaoui, who was tried in the United States in Minnesota, born of Moroccan parentage in France, never went to Morocco, never gave a damn about Morocco, was never involved in Moroccan politics, never studied Arabic but fought in Afghanistan and became a member of this virtual international community. The New Yorker magazine had a story about “Azzam the American,” the American member of al-Qaeda. The author makes a very good point that the reason this American became Salafist or al-Qaeda had nothing to do with Palestine.
When they become Salafist, they adopt the bullet points they’re supposed to say, one of which is caring about the Palestinians. Yet they become what they become because of that hole in their soul – that identity hole. That’s the whole different way in which al-Qaeda relates to these people. I have a colleague who did an enormous amount of study on those who convert to Salafism in prisons in France. They know nothing about Palestine; they know nothing about the details. But it’s a surrogate way of explaining their own pain, to put it in the language of the Palestinians. It’s a very difficult thing to combat when something appeals to youth because they’re disoriented, they’re alienated, and they don’t fit it. It’s the other side of the Columbine phenomenon; you could either become followers of Metallica or you could join the Salafis. So we have multiple drivers –
GOLDBERG: Metallica is the al-Qaeda of bands? (Laughter.)
NASR: It fills the same gap, is what I was trying to say.
GOLDBERG: See, I thought it was Anthrax.
NASR: So you have multiple drivers. There are facts on the ground al-Qaeda is appealing to and there are real fighters fighting, but it also appeals to a particular psychological identity crisis that exists in some quarters.
GOLDBERG: I’ve been playing with this idea – it’s premature for me to endorse it – that Iraq has turned into the Vietnam of al-Qaeda, that al-Qaeda went to Iraq looking for the cataclysmic fight where it would prove its superiority to America, but it picked the wrong battlefield, and it picked the wrong tactics. It picked a mostly Shia country in which the battle against America on behalf of Takfiri extremism has, in many ways, lost. It lost the population; it lost so badly that Ayman Zawahiri had to write Zarqawi a couple of years ago and ask him to stop beheading people because it was making al-Qaeda look bad. (Laughter.) It takes some doing, obviously, to provoke Ayman Zawahiri into a fit of moderation. (Laughter.)
That was a great moment for America, when even the leadership of al-Qaeda, somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan, realized they were losing the struggle for hearts and minds in Iraq against America. Now, obviously, this wasn’t the very clever plan of Donald Rumsfeld to invade Iraq to provoke al-Qaeda to overreact and come to Iraq and try to win over a Shia population that mistrusts Salafists. Nevertheless, provisionally and in a very premature way, I think that might be part of the ultimate story of al-Qaeda’s demise: that it overreached in Iraq.
NASR: To add to that: Whenever they actually hold territory, they don’t do well.
GOLDBERG: Well, they don’t do anything.
NASR: Even in northern Pakistan, once they come in – Hezbollah or Hamas are better at governance.
NASR: Right, but with the al-Qaeda guys, it all comes down to closing down video shops, measuring peoples’ beards, and they actually provoke revolts. They’re very good if they don’t rule over people.
CROMARTIE: The two last questions are from David Kuhn and Kirsten Powers.
DAVID KUHN, THE POLITICO: Professor, I was wondering if you could touch on Koranic literalism. You briefly alluded to French and English law and Shia-Sunni differences. I would like to hear your thoughts on the extent to which you believe Koranic literalism prevails and that that it has geopolitical impacts.
In other words, there are debates in Judaism or Christianity, but I would argue these debates actually don’t politically impact the nation-states that have these debates occurring within them. But I wonder if Koranic literalism, and to the extent it prevails, does impact these geopolitics and makes the soil more fertile for these plants you and Jeffrey are talking about.
KIRSTEN POWERS, THE NEW YORK POST/FOX NEWS: You said the United States is the collateral damage in what’s going on over there, that you have these rival factions and then you have the moderate Islamic people not rising up against it. Do you think the United States has played a role in what’s going on over there? Would you say it’s just a disagreement between these groups, or has the United States done things historically to inflame this or make it worse?
Then I have one real softball question I like to ask people who have your kind of knowledge. What do you think about the statement that Islam is a religion of peace? Do you believe that?
GOLDBERG: That’s a softball? (Laughter.)
NASR: I would say Koranic literalism is about more than just literalism; it’s about fundamentalism, particularly Salafism as this very puritanical streak, which includes not just literalism but also ahistoricism. Salafism denies the entire history of Islam and everything that has gone into it. So you pick up the Koran, which is a thin book, and you start completely fresh, essentially denying the whole tradition of commentary, interpretation, methodology, et cetera. Salafists, like Wahhabis and Takfiris, are literalists. And they are not just literally reading the Koran, but also every other text, like the prophetic traditions, Islamic law, et cetera.
It matters, first of all, to the extent to which Salafis, Takfiris, jihadis – They obviously believe in this thing. Secondly, if they are to develop communities that sympathize with their approach and interpretation, then the proliferation of literal interpretation does matter. There is an example: Saudi Arabia is a Salafi country. They don’t use that word, but Wahhabism is Salafism, and Salafism is a form of Wahhabism. So what does it mean, politically? Maybe you could say nothing, maybe you could point to Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, the amount of money Saudi Arabia has spent – When the Saudis spend money, they don’t give it to Shias, they don’t give it to Sufis, they don’t give it to woolly-brained, culturally oriented Muslims; they give it to people who will either say what they like to hear or do as they do. Their money basically creates momentum for a particular interpretation of Islam, which, down the road, can have political implications.
Even if it doesn’t mean people are going to pick up guns, it can mean other things. Salafism or Wahhabism is less tolerant on women’s issues; it’s less tolerant on minority issues; it, as a principle, doesn’t like compromise. Religions do well when they compromise with cultures, whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, or Islam – you can look at their permutations around the world. They’ve been most successful and interesting in their civilizational and political achievements when they’ve compromised. If you have an uncompromising, puritanical form of faith, it’s bound to not only cause conflict, but also promote the wrong kinds of values. So Islam in a global, 21stcentury culture is best-equipped if it has its much more nuanced, historical, cultural side at its forefront, not its puritanical, simplistic, rejectionist side.
The effect of literalism is not always tangible, in obvious ways, but it does matter at the end of the day. Yes, I do think we are meeting the consequences of a much larger – not just civilizational but also hard power – conflict in the Middle East. But we are party to it. We forget we are a Middle Eastern country in some ways. We have more troops there than most countries in the region; we have a huge footprint; we’re sitting there; we’re part of its struggles; we have a seat at every single event that goes on there, so we have something to do with setting these off. Had Iraq not happened, maybe a lot of this discussion wouldn’t be had.
And then, post-Iraq, what we did and didn’t do is important. This Kissingerian moment Jeff described; we decided not to exercise it. We decided not to try to capitalize quickly with what we did in Iraq and establish the lay of the land; we let things go, and it became much larger than it is. We did lump, maybe, all the radicals in one direction against us. So we do have a certain say in our own destiny; it’s not true that we’re complete bystanders. But it’s also not true that everything is about us. There is a happy medium here. We have to understand where the truth of it is.
I don’t think any religion is a religion of peace. Fundamentally, I think religions are open to interpretation; it really is a question of what interpretation is dominant and to what purpose it is being put. We’re in a time period when fundamentalism has made Islam very important in the Middle East, and it didn’t happen in 2003; it began in 1979. Fundamentalism is a particularly political beast. It’s a good question to ask, actually: Is it a form of Islam, or is it a form of politics? It’s driven to achieve more power and to build states, believing it has a perfect blueprint in the way it reads religion. Its path to power has been conflictual. The Iranian Revolution was about hard power. It was, like all revolutions, about the redistribution of wealth and class conflict, and it was bloody. And then, much like the French Revolution, it ended up in a very bloody war, with Iraq, and then its export of itself to other countries was conflictual and bloody and was about riots and coups and wars.
And in the wake of that has come this wave of Salafism. The current language of politics in Islam is not about peace; it’s about conquest and power. It’s as peaceful as any conquest and power can be. It’s Bismarckian, in a sense. What Khomeini wanted was a grand Middle East under Iranian power. What Iran wants today is a grand Middle East. So, in some ways, its language is very political and conflictual, and it seeks redemption and confirmation in worldly power. Fundamentalism doesn’t care how many people go to heaven. That’s not part of the statistics it’s working on. It measures its power based on how much territory it controls and how many people follow it and how much hard power it can account for. And that puts it in a very un-peaceful setting.
This question of moderation and peace is very germane, but it’s kind of like the question about democracy. I think Muslims are most peaceful when there is business and middle-class economics in their midst. That’s why the wrong place to try to build democracy is Gaza, where you have the poorest, most out-of-whack situation. When I was a graduate student of political science, we had an index. Countries after a certain GDP per capita were more likely to be democratic; when the size of your middle class passed a certain point, it would be more democratic.
I’ve talked to a lot of Turks – and that doesn’t mean that what applies to Turks applies to others, there are exceptions. But if you’re a religious businessman in small-town Turkey – and I’ve met a lot of them; these are your “Turkish fundamentalists” – and you’re selling products to Europe, you care about the image of Islam. It’s not good for business to be seen as a jihadist. It’s kind of like American Protestants; it’s all about the pocketbook. They give to religious causes; their wives wear headscarves. But there is a reason to be moderate. You don’t become moderate in the abstract; nobody becomes moderate for the heck of it. The rubber has to meet the road, and in much of the Muslim world, it doesn’t. The lowest-hanging fruit, if you look, is where the Muslim world is most globalized. Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, even Bangladesh to some extent. Where the Muslim world has the most problems is where it’s most isolated.
We always make a mistake; we measure moderation by the quality and beliefs of the dictator who’s ruling a country. Egypt is a far more isolated country than Bangladesh, economically speaking. It’s far more isolated than Malaysia and Indonesia. There is a reason why the Egyptian businessman is not selling to Europe, and as a result, doesn’t care how he is perceived. There is no pocketbook backlash to being a jihadist, and until there is, it’s not going to happen. If I were to say anything, I would say we need to open up the Muslim world.
GOLDBERG: Yes, we do smart things in the Middle East, we do stupid things in the Middle East and, occasionally, we do evil things in the Middle East. I think those things operate, ultimately, on the margins of the biggest story. And the biggest story is this civilization struggling with its hard reality. You have a religion of very high self-esteem, let’s put it that way – a religion that believes it is the ultimate and final word of God. It had very early experience with huge success. So you have people who believe they should be in the superior position who are confronted by a reality all around them that suggests they are not in the superior position in the world.
The Arab component of the Muslim world, in particular, is at a standstill; it’s been taking a hiatus; it doesn’t develop. And out of that gap comes a lot of this destructive energy we’re experiencing. When I used the term collateral damage, we’re collateral and we’re not, also. I mean, there are things we could do to mitigate the situation; there are things we could do to make things worse. But the thing about fanaticism is it’s very plastic, and as soon as you solve one grievance, you have another grievance created because it’s in the best interest of the fanatic to make sure there’s an everlasting list of grievances.
On this question of Islam and peace, I understand why George Bush said it two days after 9/11 – it made political sense. The categories are wrong here, and part of the reason the categories are wrong is because we, as Americans, tend to refract what we understand the role of religion to be through the prism of Christianity. And if you look at Christianity and look at Islam, these are two very, very different things. The savior of Christianity went quietly, meekly, to his death for reasons we all understand. This is not possible to imagine in the story of Muhammed; Muhammed was his own Constantine, as the saying goes, and the history of Islam is not one of “the meek shall inherit the earth;” it’s the one who has the most horses gets to inherit the earth, and that was the lesson of early Islam. It’s a great question, and I’ve asked that everywhere I go. I ask these clerics, “Is Islam a religion of peace?” And they don’t get the category; they don’t understand what I mean. They say Islam is a religion of submission. You submit yourself to the will of God and out of that, all good things come. One of those things is peace. You have peace after people acknowledge and accept the rule of God over them, and God in the particular understanding that’s brought forth in the Koran. So I think that’s the slightly impolitic way of answering that question, but I think that’s the truth of the way serious Muslims see the question.
CROMARTIE: Ladies and gentlemen, you know we’ve had a good session when we run over time for lunch, so please join me in thanking both of our speakers.
This written transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling, grammar and accuracy and by Andrea Useem.