In Jihad`s New Heartlands: How The West Has Failed To Contain Islamic Fundamentalism, London-based author Gabriel G. Tabarani draws on his extensive experience in the Middle East to provide an insight into the phenomenon of extremism and what can be done to combat it. Excerpts from an interview:
What is the future of political Islam in the Muslim world?
Most experts` studies confirm that Islamist movements meet a deeply perceived public need in the Muslim world, a need that continues to be felt after several decades of activism that have not yet reached their end. Otherwise how does one explain these movements` success and support? It is possible that the role of political Islam will be diminished at some point in this century, but one of two things must happen: Either the conditions that helped propel Islamism into the political sphere will have to disappear, or some other force or ideology will have to rise to meet the need more effectively.
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With the death of the Al Qaida supremo, and people`s weariness with the unending militant violence, do you think we are looking at a post-extremist era in the Muslim world?
The death of Osama Bin Laden doesn`t bring the death of his brand of politics. Al Qaida and affiliates have a thriving franchise in Yemen and Pakistan, and could gain other bases in the region. However, the killing of Bin Laden comes at a crucial time in the history of the Middle East. The Arab Spring is reshaping the region and its politics in ways not seen in generations.
The successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the unresolved uprisings in Syria, Libya and Yemen are thus far post-Islamist. These political shifts have not been driven by discourse on Israel, US foreign policy or ideological zeal. They have been caused by a desire to improve their nations` internal conditions.
Following the toppling of the authoritarian regimes in Tunis and Cairo, both the Al Nahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are expected to do well in the general elections. How would you assess this probability, given that both Rashid Al Gannoushi of Al Nahda and Essam Al Erian of the Brotherhood are seen as moderate pragmatists?
I suppose the best way to answer your question is to run through the gradients. First, I do not believe Al Nahda or the Muslim Brotherhood will gain sufficient support to form majority governments. The next gradient down from here is that they will form part of a coalition government with non-Islamist parties. This seems most likely, given the poll data (Muslim Brotherhood 20 per cent and Al Nahda 18 per cent). That accounts for the near term; the longer term will depend on how the Islamic parties perform in government or opposition.
Is the AK Party in Turkey the model to be followed by all Islamist or Muslim conservative groups seeking power through the ballot?
Reconciling Islamic heritage and popular demands for participatory government and individual rights has posed a dilemma for Islamic activists. This has focused on how to present Islam in a "secular" context. The debate among Muslim thinkers has yet to yield a clear explanation about the interaction between secularism and Islam. However, it is possible to glean from media and academic analysis a perception that these advocates seem to model their notion of "secular Islam" on the Justice and Development Party (AK) in Turkey, where a separation is emerging between one`s faith and public life or a separation of church and state, as it is understood in the West. It seems that the AK Party in Turkey will be the model to follow by Islamist movements after its success in government under a secular constitution, which it is now trying to change.
You contend that Ethiopia had to intervene militarily in Somalia when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was briefly in power " a period characterised by peace for the first time in many years. Is it fair to blame the ICU, when people at that time saw it as US-backed aggression by a dictatorial regime in Addis Ababa, which led to disastrous consequences for all concerned, especially Somali civilians?
I never contend in my book that Ethiopia had no choice but to intervene militarily. However, given the situation at the time, "the hardliners ... began pushing the ICU [the then ruling Islamic Courts Union] into increasingly bellicose and radical positions that alarmed neighbouring Ethiopia and the United States. The ICU declared jihad on Ethiopia .... In short, the hardliners in the ICU did everything they could to provoke a war with Ethiopia, and in late December 2006 they got their wish."
So my aim in my book was never to contend or to blame. My objective is merely to put forth the truth in an unbiased manner, according to documented information. This is without taking sides or passing judgement.
Furthermore, to fully understand the Ethiopian government`s actions at the time, more analysis would have been needed " however, I felt that this was beyond the remit of my latest book and thus was only touched upon briefly.
Do you think Western political and economic interests can be aligned with the values and politics of moderate Islamist parties? If so, why has this not happened across the Muslim world?
Of course, Western political and economic interests can overlap with values and politics of moderate Islamist parties. Otherwise, how could one explain the success of Turkey`s AK Party and its relationship with the West?
Perhaps a more salient question would be: Why has cooperation between the West and the Islamist moderates not yet materialised? This is owed to the West`s ignorance and misunderstanding of Islamist moderates` aims compared to those held by radical Islamic Salafis " this is understandable to a certain extent after the events of September 11. However, with the arrival of the Arab Spring, it would appear that the West (the US in particular) has tacitly accepted to work with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria and perhaps in other places in the future.
The subtitle of your book is `Why the West Has Failed to Contain Islamic Fundamentalism`. But for the most part of the book, you have concentrated on the different challenges of militancy in various Muslim countries.
You are correct in drawing attention to the subtitle. However, as mentioned it is a subtitle " there to add colour and clarity to the main title, that being Jihad`s New Heartlands. I thought it is best for the reader that I focus the most part of the book on providing detailed analysis of Jihad`s traditional heartlands, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and its new heartlands such as Yemen, Somalia, the Levant, the Maghreb, Pakistan and Afghanistan. As this book is written in English, it is most likely to be read by Western audiences who are likely to benefit most from an understanding of the origin of radicalism in Islam, a topic sensationalised by the Western press. I wanted them to get an appreciation for Islam as a religion of peace " how it was originally intended " and not as a warlike faith as some conservative pundits in the West may pretend.
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