Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Barry Rubin, the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. He is also editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. He is the author of the new book The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East.
FP: Barry Rubin, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Rubin: Always a pleasure.
FP: What motivated you to write this book?
Rubin: I’m always looking for issues which everyone is talking about but no one is researching. The whole question of democracy in the Middle East has become the centerpiece of U.S. policy, a prime subject in the whole world, and an important phenomenon in the Middle East. Yet there was not a single work which actually looked at the liberals, who they are, what they want, and the problems they face. Aside from that, I have worked on Middle Eastern issues for 30 years and this development is one of the most interesting of modern times. I have read a lot of the material and met many liberals. This book is also a follow-up of my The Tragedy of the Middle East, which focuses on the existing regimes and their Islamist challengers. Over the last quarter-century I have been following the trends in this battle through books on the Iranian revolution, the upheavals in the Persian Gulf, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, terrorism, and other issues.
FP: Tell us about the battle for the soul of the Middle East.
Rubin: Briefly, every Arab country plus Iran and the Palestinians has long been led by dictatorships—Lebanon and Iraq are currently different. These leaders have failed to deliver on their promises but they have not fallen. This situation is at odds with trends in the rest of the world. The regimes have survived through a mix of techniques, including repression and corruption, the use of anti-Americanism and anti-Israel rhetoric, playing ethnic politics, and other methods. The main challengers to them have been radical Islamists who in a sense have the same basic world view. They simply want to substitute Islamism for Arab nationalism. As I put it, this means they are saying that the mistake is not bashing one’s own head against a stone wall but merely not doing it hard and long enough. Now the liberals have emerged as a third, but the weakest, alternative. In every Arab state plus Iran and the Palestinians, the future is going to see a struggle between these three forces that is going to go on for a very long time. We cannot assume the regimes will soon fall or that the liberals will inevitably win. In my opinion this three-way battle is and will be the greatest political drama of our time.
FP: Why is the Arab world such a failure when it comes to liberty, democracy and an understanding of individual freedom? What are the main obstacles now to democracy taking root in the Middle East?
Rubin: Let me put it this way. Aside from long-term factors which we cannot really identify, the Middle East’s course is not altogether different from European history. In the course of development and change, Europe suffered from the triumphs of two authoritarian ideologies—Communism and fascism. In the Middle East, it was Arab nationalism and Islamism which have taken ideological hegemony and at times political power much more thoroughly. The Middle East has to work itself out of this problem. We should also remember that democracy took centuries to develop in places like England and France.
The main obstacle to democracy is the strength of the regimes and of their Islamist opponents, the appeal of those ideologies and their control over so many institutions. Forces which in Europe were allies of democracy—like religion and nationalism—are on the opposite side in the Middle East. Social groupings that were in the vanguard of democratic demands in the West and other places in the Third World—intellectuals, students, trade unions, businesspeople, professionals—are often tied to the government or, even worse, are the bearers of the dominant ideologies. People are surrounded by a society which reinforces its idea and keeps out those of democracy. Ideas which were indigenous in Europe and America are viewed suspiciously as subversive importations in the Middle East. The Arab nationalists and Islamists are brilliant at keeping up their domination.
FP: What do you think of Natan Sharansky’s thesis in The Case for Democracy that freedom is intoxicating and can penetrate any society or culture?
Rubin: On one hand, I am sympathetic to what he is trying to do and say but on the other it is misleading to ignore the cultural context of beliefs. For example, what does freedom mean? Is it dangerous or desirable? If free elections will bring radical Islamists to power are people going to take that risk? If they are persuaded that freedom means the destruction of their religion, chaos, and anarchy, the triumph of demonic foes, are they going to embrace it? If some people are too skeptical of the importance of challenging the existing system in the region, others are too naïve about what is involved in doing so.
FP: Was the invasion of Iraq a positive or negative step in terms of the push for liberty in the Middle East?
Rubin: I was never enthusiastic about the war although I recognize the moral importance of freeing the Iraqi people from such a terrible regime. Iraqis are now often advocates of pluralism. An Iraqi intellectual went to Beirut and urged the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union to condemn the repression of the Saddam Hussein regime. One Lebanese politician said to him that he was tired of all this Iraqi whining. Why should they complain when every Arab country has mass graves? This kind of thing, along with broad Arab support for the terrorists murdering them, has made many Iraqis angry. Certainly, the war did open up the debate in the Arab world while simultaneously it gave the regimes and Islamists new arguments. That is the fate of any effort to do anything in the region. One Arab centrist put it this way, he said that the Bush administration should feel good that it did shake up the regimes and put democracy on the agenda. But of course regimes also portrayed the war as a good reason why the masses should support them and fight the West.
If the war had not happened there would be less struggle over democracy but there is still remarkably little compared to what people think. The clear answer about Iraq is that if Iraq does become stable and works it will become a role model for democracy and moderation in the region. If it doesn’t, it will become a cautionary tale. But even in the best-case outcome there are going to be many people in the Arab world whose desire to combat democracy will become even stronger. On balance, the war was a positive step but the very threat that Iraq would succeed and influence others was a major factor inspiring Arab nationalists and Islamists to want to see the experiment strangled. Certainly, this is a main cause of the terrorist insurgency within the country, as well as the wide support it enjoys in the Arab world.
FP: What is the best way the West can support liberals in the Middle East? What would you recommend to the Bush administration that it do vis-à-vis these reformers?
Rubin: I should be frank and say that I don’t think this is as important a question as people think. Of course, U.S. policy can help and I believe that support for democratic change is generally a correct strategy. One could talk about a long list of items from translating and publishing books in Arabic, to providing grants, to encouraging governments to launch reforms, and so on. Incidentally, a confident program of projecting America’s best values and democracy is still far from the “public relations” campaign that the United States is running. The fact that USIA no longer exists is a devastating weakness on this front. But overwhelmingly it will be domestic developments in Arab states that determine the course of events. At this point, the input of the United States or of the West is going to be no more than 10 percent or so of the equation. The realities of the Middle East cannot be reduced to partisan slogans or fit into the predetermined world views of Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives.
FP: Tell us a bit about how supporting democracy in the Middle East will also help us win the terror war. Terrorists have difficulty breathing and surviving in democratic environments, so by supporting liberty in the Arab world we simultaneously suffocate the al-Zarqawis and Osamas, correct?
Rubin: Again, it is not so simple. Obviously (or it should be obvious), the idea of democracy, higher living standards, equal rights for women, a more open economy, human rights, etc., should be the alternative to the radical Islamist vision. Many people in the United States believe that this would be no contest and the Islamists would inevitably lose.
I am not at all so sure that this is true. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which supports and incites though it does not directly commit terrorism, has just tripled its seats in the first round of the elections there alone. One could say that its electoral successes would encourage it to stay away from violence and that may be true but if the day came it thought power was possible to achieve, that situation might change dramatically.
Look at Algeria where the Islamist FIS group came to the point of electoral victory, the military staged a coup to keep it out, and tens of thousands of people died in the ensuing violence. In Iraq, the Shia have been relatively moderate due to the leadership of Ayatollah Sistani, but what happens if he dies and the leading Shia coalition passes into the leadership of more extreme and pro-Iranian Islamists? What happens if in Syria the 60 percent Sunni majority united behind an Islamist leadership to contest elections and clashed with the regime. How about Hizballah’s power in Lebanon which is used precisely to ensure it has leverage to maintain its terrorist forces? What about Hamas which is making big gains in Palestinian democratic elections while openly promising to step up terrorism and it seeks to use its position to take over the Palestinian movement?
Moreover, terrorists do exist in numbers in such democratic countries as England (Northern Ireland), Spain (the Basques), India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and other countries. So many of the simple statements made in recent years—like democracy will inevitably eliminate terrorism—is not so clear. Both the Nazis and Bolsheviks won elections, and that is what gave them the opportunity to seize power. Of course, once they seized power they abolished democracy. So perhaps the point would better be phrased that if democracy survives it will limit extremism and terrorism. But that is a circular argument.
At the same time, the regimes use counter-terrorism as an excuse for repression, which often hits liberals as much or more than it does Islamist terrorists. I am starting to think that there is too much emphasis on terrorism. Terrorism is a terrible thing and it should be stopped. But what is terrorism? Not the spontaneous cry of the oppressed but a strategy employed by extremist political movements. What is most worrisome are their goals, which in the first place is to seize state power. If they achieve that objective by other means and then can use the state to carry out aggression, terrorism, and a nightmarish rule, whether or not they switched the emphasis away from terrorism is going to be less important.
FP: Are you optimistic about the democratization and modernization of the Arab world?
Rubin: Over the next 50 years, yes. Over the next 10 years, no. I think this will be a long-term trend—with an emphasis both on the “long-term” and “trend” parts. But of course the pro-democratic individuals in the Arab world know that they have no choice but to wage the struggle, both out of individual conscience and to save their societies.
Thus, optimism and pessimism are not relevant to what has to be done. But they are relevant to setting policies and priorities. There is still not a single important liberal party outside of Kuwait. Even in Egypt, the opposition to the government is largely controlled by radical Arab nationalists and the Muslim Brotherhood. There is hardly a single newspaper being published in Arabic in the Arab world. One might believe that eventually—in the long run, measured in decades—the liberals will win but there is a long, hard road with many zigzags to get to that point. In my book, which is entitled The Long War for Freedom for that very reason, I explain who the liberals are, what they believe, their debates over strategy and the arguments and actions taken by their enemies. This includes discussing in detail how they see such key issues as Islam, America, Israel, women’s rights, terrorism, and the war in Iraq. It is a fascinating story with many courageous people and what may well be the most interesting intellectual debates of our era.
FP: Dr. Rubin, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
Rubin: I hope people find this interview useful.
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