Wednesday, 25 March 2015 20:20

Future of political Islam, of ISIS and what should we expect from Russia on the Middle Eastern track.

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I would like to start our conversation with an interesting and important question - the future of political Islam. This topic has been discussed in our conversation with Mustafa Tlili. Examples of Tunisia and Egypt, where Islamists coming into power had a short time in office then faced a complete defeat, let us raise this question. Many experts beleive that political Islam is not able to gain a foothold in power for a long time and will inevitably give way to secular forces soon. Some experts think that after this failure, both in Egypt and Tunisia, the political Islam is on the brink of complete decomposition. What do you think of the future of political Islam in the Middle East?

 It’s a difficult question. It needs excursion into history to understand, firstly, what the political Islam is. Secondly we need an excursion into the history in order to understand why it has acquired such strength. It is difficult to answer unequivocally, what will happen to political Islam. A whole lecture is required.

 

But if not to take this question in a historical perspective, its formation, its development? What if to talk about the future of political Islam taking the Arab Spring as a starting point, which in turn was quite a unique phenomenon, given its absolutely secular slogans and then the subsequent arrival of the Islamists? And then these Islamists’ rule did not last long. At the current moment in history and in the foreseeable future, after this failure, in your opinion is  it also difficult to make predictions about the future of political Islam?

 Well, I would say that it is still very difficult to give an answer. Firstly, because there is no clear definition of what the political Islam is. The arrival into power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia has shown the two things: on the one hand, that the people wanted a change and rejected the autocratic regimes that did not give them the freedom and security, that they could not withstand the omnipotence of the elites, unemployment, corruption etc. any longer. On the other hand, political vacuum has been created, and it turned out that the most organised political force was Muslim Brotherhood that had carried out much work with the population in the social field and had a good position. As a result, the Islamists have won the elections, both in Egypt and in Tunisia. But in the future, indeed, they have failed as they did not have any adequate program, because all their slogans were designed to overthrow the existing regimes, there were no constructive, positive action programs: how to withdraw their countries out of the crisis, how to proved people with work. And so they have not existed for long. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, this failure of relatively moderate political Islamists led to a dramatic rise of the radical Islamists, who took advantage of the situation and have considerably strengthened their positions in many areas. Today they spread their influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya and in several African countries. And there is no understanding how the other events in the region of the Middle East will develop. The fact to be admitted is that the radical methods of struggle, barbaric, savage cruelty, are quite effective. The young people who are in a state of frustration, who were disappointed, because of being jobless with no perspectives, with no chances to live a decent life, more and more of them join these radical Islamists because they do not see another way. After all, all they want is to have everything they want here and now, as soon as possible.

All phenomena have a dialectical side. I think that the Muslim Brotherhood suffered a big blow, and it is unlikely that they will resurrect as a phoenix, at least in Egypt. But many of their supporters and fans now join the ranks of radical Islamists.

I would like to stress once again the fact that political Islam should be correctly identified - what do we mean by this term. Because those theocratic regimes that exist in the Gulf States may fall under the definition of political Islam too. And they do a lot to put the struggle, which is now underway, in the mainstream of the Shiite and Sunni Islam etc. I would not jump to conclusions that political Islam disappears or is weakened. It is transforming, taking new forms. I think that now we see the strengthening of radical Islam against the background of the moderate Islam weakening. 

 The future of political Islam depends on how the rulers will be able to solve the problems of social development. First of all:  to get rid of the terrible poverty, to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, to deal with unemployment, corruption, etc. Anyway, in my opinion, we witness now if not a victorious march of radical Islam, then something like that. Boko Haram militants have sworn allegiance to ISIS. In Libya ISIS rebels are quite successful, having manifested themselves through the execution of the 22 Copts. And more and more Islamist movements swear allegiance to the Caliphate led by Caliph Ibrahim. So I think that these processes are far from being completed. We see them in the dynamics. What will the outcome of this process be depends, firstly, on foreign intervention, which always determines a lot. And secondly, it depends on how successful the Assad’s Syrian Army actions against militants of ISIS will be and how successfully the Iraqis will be able to press the ISIS. In any case, now even the US, who actually provoked the rise of these radicals, begins to realize that it’s impossible to defeat this terrible evil without cooperation with the Iraqi and Syrian authorities.

 

Despite the bombardments of the coalition forces the ISIS still augments its influence, which has already expanded beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria and even the Middle Eastern region as in case with Boko Haram in Africa, and according to some sources the ISIS is already entering Afghanistan. The efficiency of the measures taken by the coalition is debated.  What do you think that the international community should undertake in order to stop and abolish ISIS? What should be revised in the current approach to this problem resolution? And what are the prospects of the struggle against the Islamic state in the current situation?

We should be ready for the new victories of ISIS and new complications, tensions, new conflicts. Why? The support of these radicals among the Muslim youth that does not want to wait is increasing. And despite its cruelty ISIS is considered efficient. The main thing attractive for the new recruits is the injustice of current conditions. Aspiration for justice is natural. The willingness to see this justice during one’s life makes many young people enter the ranks of these fighters. They believe that in such a way they will be able to deracinate the root of evil of the injustice. 

New turmoil should be expected.

I always say that the Americans are interested in the instability in the Middle East. The do not depend on the Middle Eastern oil anymore. These conflicts allow them to control their allies – Europe and Asia as they depend on this oil much more.

The shortsighted position of Europe that depends much on these resources and moreover supplies many new recruits to these Islamist groups is unclear. In fact, by such position it sets fire in its own home. During the execution of the Copts the leader of this gang pointed his knife in the direction of Rome по тексту что-то другое было  and said: “Wait for us”. The Europeans do not make proper conclusions from the latest terrorist acts.

They have focused all their efforts to cut Ukraine form Russia. This is a very shortsighted policy. And while it goes on there will be no progress in fight against ISIS. The so-called coalition with the US in head is active for a year and nothing has changed. The Iraqi are even unable to take Tikrit. They say they need help from coalition. Additional forces are required.

The international efforts should be combined. Not only in the military sphere but also the fight against this ideology, education measures for this Muslim youth, cutting the funding channels. But it is virtually impossible in the conditions of international tensions and ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The understanding that the international efforts should be united to fight this cancer tumor is coming to the Middle East. The efforts are fruitful only if the international community is united.

This was the same in the Syrian case. A big war – the US bombardments, was averted then. We have agreed on the chemical weapons destruction with the Americans. And now we are on the verge of a new turn of tension.

For example the Saudi already voice their intentions to get the nuclear weapons as they are not content with the US agreements with Iran. Egypt is considering nuclear programs. Turkey as well. That will be the result. The situation is difficult and explosive.

However our Western partners believe that they will manage to avert new terrorist acts – that is not the case. Western Europe is unable to elaborate an adequate program to integrate 30 millions of Muslims. They do not have an understanding of how to pacify their own Muslims, not speaking about the efforts to suppress radical Islamists in the Middle East. If they do not change their approach – the situation will not change and will severely deteriorate. I do not share the optimism that the bombardments will help to stop ISIS and vanquish them. I think that further everything will be worse and more complicated.

In the conditions of crisis with the West Russia has declared its turn to the East now. And the first step was an important strengthening of relations with Egypt. Moreover, Russia was among the first countries to declare support for Egypt after the execution of Copts. And that provoked some assumptions in the international community that Russia may even join the international coalition.

 

How Russia is important for the Middle East now? And is there possibility of its joining the international coalition?

Russia is a great power. And it has such potential that nothing can be done without it. All the more it concerns the Middle East, where we have rather strong positions. It is not only regarding the Syrian crisis. It is also about Turkey. Though there are some differences with Turkey on the Syrian crisis, the cooperation between our countries is increasing and Russian-Turkish cooperation is strengthening in all the spheres. There is also an intensive cooperation with Egypt. There is an active exchange of delegations. Many of them are not covered in media. We exchange information. There is an ongoing military cooperation. And all this will continue. Russia is awaited in Iraq. The Iraqi warmly recall their cooperation with Moscow in all the spheres, and mainly in the weaponry.

There is the same for Libya. I was an Ambassador there. Two Libyans from opposition have come saying that all the parties of the Libyan conflict, including the Islamists believe that Russian participation is essential to preserve a united Libya. They do not trust others. Even the Islamists! The Italian Prime Minister has recently arrived here and besides the discussion of the Ukrainian crisis he asked to help with Libya as the crisis there is the direct threat for the Italians. And this is really so. They are not so far away: the Libyan shore is close enough to Sicily. How to resolve the Libyan crisis? Only with the participation of Moscow.

The Eastern turn does exist and it will go on. The second meeting with Syrian opposition and representatives of the Syrian government will take place in April. Russia does much effort to achieve a real settlement. Russia sticks to a position that no conflict can be resolved from the position of force in the 21st century. Everybody should make agreements. This position is becoming increasingly attractive for the Arab capitals. Everybody is positive towards Russia.

And there are more and more examples. We have wonderful relations with Sudan, there are traditionally admirable relations with Algeria. In the Persian Gulf they also say that Russia is a trusted partner. And I believe that it will be soon reflected in the figures of trade and economic cooperation. But it requires some time.

 The main idea is that there are so many issues today that they should be resolved exclusively by the political means and only on the basis of collective cooperation and efforts. There are some elements of understanding now. There were some attempts before to resolve the Syrian crisis by the “Friends of Syria”. There were constant meetings. And now Kerry says that this problem cannot be resolved without the dialogue with the government of Assad. And the CIA director says, “You take out Assad and what will happen? The thugs will come?” The signs of understanding are visible. But they are just the first ones.

As far as joining the international coalition is concerned – we have already voiced our position that we condemn this format. We believe that the struggle with ISIS should be complex. And it should be multifunctional: not only the military one by supplying arms, but by cutting the financial influxes, serious educational measures for the youth, not to make it susceptible to the blandishment of these wild preachers that say that one should live as in the 7th century. It is essential to cope with this evil. But as currently the West is focused on arguing with Russia over the Ukrainian issues, we are unable to speak about any real political, efficient cooperation now. It is an incorrect choice of priories.

The Europeans should understand that taking into consideration their problems with migration policy and successful recruitment of Europeans by the ISIS, they are able to resolve them only in cooperation with Russia. We coexist more than a millennium: the Christians of the Eastern and Western Churches. Of course we have misunderstandings. But we coexist perfectly. We have created our own system. But we should fight the extremism together. And the particular attention should be paid to the system of education so that it does not produce partisans of barbaric extremists.

 

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Veniamin Popov

Veniamin Popov is a director of "Civizations` Partnership Centre". Career diplomat, on diplomatic service since 1965. Worked at the Russian Embassies in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and South Yemen.