SPEAKER: Tarek Osman
CHAIR: Tom Wilson, Research Fellow, The Henry Jackson Society
TIME: 18:00 – 19:00, 20th April 2017
VENUE: The Henry Jackson Society, 26th Floor, Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, London, SW1P 4QP
Tom Wilson: Hello ladies and gentleman and welcome to The Henry Jackson Society, my name is Tom Wilson and I am a researcher here. It is my great pleasure to welcome Tarek Osman who is the author of Egypt on the Brink and now more lately, this book which we have on sale after the event, Islamism – what is means for the Middle East and the world. Tarek is a writer and a presenter of several BBC documentaries most recently Islam divided, he is a regular contributor to Foreign Affairs, Project Syndicate, The Cario View amongst others and he is also a Senior Political Counsellor on the Arab world in Turkey at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. I shall hand over to Tarek.
Tarek Osman: Thank you. To be very honest I didn’t prepare much for this for one very simple reason, I thought that this talk is very rich and if I choose one subject it might be one dimensional amongst others, so what I will try to do in the next 20 minutes, maximum half an hour is to take you through basically the key points in which I try to address in this book and then hopefully after that this will stir a number of questions.
I guess the first thing which I tried to do was answer the question which my editor asked me what was what is Islamism, there are probably 200 definitions for that. The one I opted to was basically one that tries to look at Islam not from a religious point of view or from a theological point of view but rather its role in politics and society in the last 100 years, specifically in the wider Middle East which I define as the Arab world, Iran and Turkey. So again not looking at any formal definition at what political Islam could be, it is not necessarily looking at Islamism as an equal to political Islam but rather Islam as seen by different groups in the Middle East including Iran and Turkey, specifically in the last 100, 150 years only not before that as a basis for political legitimacy, as basis for legislation, as a basis for calling a country an Islamic country, as a basis for designating groups as Muslims versus others. That is an interesting point because I come for Egypt for example and there is one definition for saying your Egyptian and one definition for saying you are Muslim, you are a Christian, you are a Jew. So basically the political and social role if Islam in that part of the world in that specific time frame.
That was the first point I tried to put forward and I did that in a way that it does not go into too much theory. I know my publisher is an academic publisher but I try to make that part quite succinct. The second part I try to delve into this book which I refer to as mainstream political Islam, I admit it is probably a super boring name, mainstream can be anything but I mean groups that to a large extent the notion of political Islam groups that give different – in my view – interesting definitions and interpretations of all of these different things, Islam as a political identity, Islam as a legislative basis, Islam as national identity etc. But groups that at least in the vast majority of their history were very political as opposed to violent. Groups that to a very large extent relied on reteric, on money, on lobbying, on influencing that were not necessarily from day one adopted a violent approach.
There are so many groups actually of that nature in the wider Middle East but the groups that I focus on in the first part of the book are three – the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in Jordan, the group operates in many countries in the world but these two are quite important countries for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt because that is where it was born and were I argue the bulk of its reformative experience has been specifically in the 1940s to the 1960s and in Jordan because it is the longest period of operations for the Muslim Brotherhood in the world until today. The second group I try to focus on a bit is Ennahdha a group which I would call Islamist in Tunisia and it is quite interesting that we are having this chat in London because in my view the formative experience actually of the thinking of a lot of Ennahdha was in London in the 80s and the 90s when the leader was in political exile in this city. The third group which I try to focus on a bit is the PJD the political party that has effectively been leading the political coalition in Morocco from late 2011 until now.
Why is this the starting part of the book? Because for anybody who has followed the Middle East in the last five years after what you refer to as the Arab Spring, political Islam won most of the important elections which took place in the wider Middle East that is from Morocco to Kuwait. So there is a big question mark around why is political Islam winning elections, especially with the narrative in the West after the Arab Spring was that this is very much a youth driven, secular driven, an Arab version if you would like of what took place in Central Eastern Europe in the late 80s after the end of the Cold War but before the fall of the Berlin wall. So there was an idea in the West that this was the Arab version of that. Therefore when the political Islamist groups starting winning almost all the elections across the Arab world there was a big question mark and even had some people in Western media calling it the Arab winter, so that was the starting point, why are they winning and my answer was you need to try and understand the history. I claim, I am putting forward a history not the history. I am full of myself but not to that extent, so I am just saying it is a history.
What I tried to do after that in the book is I try to put forward the other major stream of political Islam and that is Salafism. For those who know exactly what I am talking about I apologize for the simplification I put forward now but in a nutshell the word means, Salafi means predecessor like my grandfather is my Salafi in a way. In a nutshell this terminology became a very weird name right now, most people when you say that word they don’t understand it and they Google it quickly and what comes to you is something typically along the lines of militancy and of groups that use violence. Or what comes to you is something along the lines of the religious ideology that has been very dominant in parts of the Arabian Peninsula especially in Saudi Arabia, typically referred to as Wahhabism. So typically Salafism is simplified to either militancy or super hostile, narrow minded views of Islam.
What I try to do in this part of the book, I try to go back to the mid/late 19th Century and try to put forward to you what was Salafism and in a nutshell it was a response by scholars of Islamic theology by secular thinkers in the late 19th Century. To answer a very simple question, many societies in the Islamic world were facing a challenge of modernity something that faced an issue with Napoleon when there was an invasion of Egypt in the late 18th Century then another Islamic world, effectively the Ottoman Empire opened up to Europe and there were many, many big questions about the role of Islam really in society and in politics and in my view that point was the birthplace of Salafism which I refer to in this book. So you will find that the first part of that section is a lot about certain thinkers rather than certain groups. I find many of their ideas extremely interesting in thinkers who actually came from seats of learning from places like Al-Azhar which is the oldest university in Egypt as well as other thinkers who came from Istanbul. Then I trace that story and I end up with a group such as ISIS today and many others, ISIS is one amongst other groups that use extreme forms of violence. What I try to do is not really to tell you who recruited who and when they bombed what, I don’t cover any of that, very bad of me to say that, if that is going to sell the book well don’t buy the book. What I try to do actually is to trace the thinking, so why did the ideas from what I call Salang of thinking really ended up in battlefields to a very large extent.
Another section in the book is those who very early on have a certain view that the role of Islam in society and certainly in Politics needs to be modernalised, some would say curtailed, I would say evolved the political wording which worked right at the era. Basically those who said that the role that Islam plays in society and in politics in the Middle East, the Arab world, in Iran, in Turkey, in the previous centuries needs to evolve and all of them by exception in reality at least meant by example or by words meant smaller role. The biggest example of course is Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, you can argue to some extent Nasser in Egypt, a number of leaders typically referred to as secular who put forward different ideas. What I try to do in this section is not to really focus much on the leaders as much the thinking. The groups again, social groups largely, typically upper/middle class on the economic league sometimes in different parts of the Arab world, why they saw a need for evolving the role of Islam different from the thinkers who actually wanted Islam to play a role in societies but they were trying to find a compromise, how can you get the theology to fit the modernity? You had others who said no we need a complete overhaul of the whole of Islam. So what I try to do in that section is to put forward again ideas that play in the late 19th Century, early 20th Century from the exact opposite group and how also it became a very assertive top down secularization program such as the one which Kemal Atatürk lead in Turkey, such as the one Habib Bourguiba lead in Tunisia. So if in a way, for the academics in the room, I am a classic boring academic here in the sense that I use the exact same approach that I use for militancy that I use for the secular groups.
What I tried to do after that was to put forward two challenges if you would like that were there lurking at the back between the political Islamists, the Salafists, the militant Islamists versus the seculars which are two – one the idea of Arab liberalism. The was a long era, I define it as long many people disagree with me but I define Arab liberalism as a long interesting era which started from the mid-19th Century up to the mid-20th Century that have I think extremely interesting ideas in how the role of religion in general can now be incorporated into a non-religious state that is ruled on a national, secular, tolerant, open minded forms. This Arab liberalism extends, I delve into it slightly, but then I try to see why it did not succeed and why it did not lead to any example in the Arab world that we can say ah that can continue with us at some time. Here I draw a bit on the experience of Lebanon, a bit on the experience of Tunisia, I drew a bit on the experience of some of the civil society groups in Kuwait and these are interesting spots in the Arab world last century. Interesting because they are tolerant to a large extent, they are multi-faith to a large extent, they are very open-minded in terms of freedom of expression, in terms of women’s rights, in terms of the role of civil society. So basically I am trying to put forward in these two big camps I have presented that there was something in the middle that looked, that many Europeans and Westerners in the room, when they see it they would probably be very sympathetic towards it. The fact at least to my mind is that has failed simply because we have not a single example in the last 30 years in the Arab world or in Iran or in Turkey that materializes that, that symbolizes that.
That is the fraction that I discuss, why Arab liberalism and other places in the Arab world like Iran and Turkey did not put something forward, intellectually and realistically that could have stood to the idea of this book.
The second part after that which is between the two big groups is Arab minorities and that is an interesting point because to my mind one of the fundamental distinctions between the Arab world and the Islamic world, obviously the culture itself has a lot of components which sets it apart from that dimension in Turkey, in Iran, in Egypt and other parts of the Islamic world, but I think religious minorities in the Arab world play a crucial role not just in the revolution of Arab culture in the last 100 years, not just in the revolution of Arab civil society in the last 100 years but in carving something distinctive in the notion of Arab-ness as opposed to an Islamic identity.
I think all the points I highlighted in the first part of this book the political Islamists are winning elections across the Arab world, political Islam evolving its narrative along and in many ways actually coming much more adaptive to the motions of modern democracy. The fact that is was popular amongst many young Arabs actually, especially in the period right after, well in the last 10 years in general, all that I think raised very serious questions in the minds of many Arab minorities and I focus specifically on two. I focus on the Lebanese and Maronite’s and I focus on the Egyptian Coptic’s, the eastern orthodox.
Again I focus on two things. I don’t really focus much on the political maneuvering in Lebanon which is very complicated or in the political interaction between the regimes of President Mubarak for example in the 2000s versus what was happening in the Egyptian Coptic’s it is not really that. First of all because the details are too much but for me the more interesting part was the evolution of the place of the Maronite’s in the modern Lebanese experience which was supposed to be secular and supposed to be multi-faith and the position of the Egyptian Christians in the non-state of Egypt and how that is effected by the social rise and of course the political rise of political Islam.
So I raise a lot of these questions and I was very lucky that I had the chance to do lots of interviews with different people in the communities. By people I mean different generations which is something I tried to put forward which is the different views of different generations to their belonging to their country and the wider region. I will not dwell too much on that but the reason I put a chapter on this in the book is because I thought it is very important to highlight the implications of the social rise of political Islam, not necessarily militant Islam just political Islam, the resurge of religion again on the minorities. Especially as it is particularly presented in the West in notions of protecting minorities which in my mind is vastly inaccurate, it is a much richer story than that.
I have tried to move ahead because I have already took 15 minutes. What I try to do after that is look at two examples that for the Arab Islamists is where it gets extremely interesting and even for the Arab Seculars who are extremely interesting, one is the last 35 years in Iran which of course is the life of the Islamic republic of Iran. Early on I admit that for the very serious scholars of political Islam there is a crucial challenge to me that because Iran is Shiite and because of certain theological dimensions of the Shiite theology the experience of Iran is extremely unique and therefore it is almost impossible to compare it to any other Islamist experience in the Arab world for example. I admit that this is true actually and I do not delve into that I accept it in two very short periods, short paragraphs actually or sections. What I try to do in this chapter is very simple, I try to see in the 35 years of the political experience of the Islam republic in Iran didn’t arrive at a social and political place that would make any of the political Islamists groups in the Arab world want to arrive at the same place. That is the question I set out to answer in that chapter. I will not leave you in suspense, the answer is no to my mind. Basically the chapter tries to present what I think is a fair, a bit scholarly approach to the experience of the Islamic republic of Iran in the last 35 years and then the argument of why no, it is not a model.
I try to do exactly the same thing for the Turkish experience of political Islam in Turkey. Now to say that today that becomes very interesting given the round of results in Turkey, I admit this book has been out a few months now so it doesn’t tackle that. It looks at something to me very interesting, Professor Ali and I were discussing it earlier. 90 years of secularization in Turkey and you still have after that an extremely interesting and some would say a very rapid and certainly very potent rise of a group who I think are Islamist, who in Turkey since 2002. To me the biggest story is the role of religion in the society, in the Turkish society why have the AKP managed to achieve this immensely quick and powerful rise after 90 years of secularization and why you are seeing the responses you are seeing right now from wide segments of the upper middle class in Turkey. After I put forward that again, hopefully in a way that many of you will end up reading the book will think is detached and fair, I try to put forward the same question and answer it.
Where that group of political Islamists in Turkey ended, when is it a model for many of the political Islamists groups – will they end up in the same place, some of them are yes and some of them are no. So the answer to Turkey is to my mind muddled to the answer to the model question in Iran. I try to put forward why some groups are very keen on and aspects of political Islam in Turkey while others are not.
The chapter before the last is on the West and political Islam and here I don’t go into most of the stuff what has been covered by lots of books before, for example how the United States in particular was very close to political Islam, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, blah blah blah. I don’t go into that accept very briefly but for me the three interesting questions are I that chapter are how did the West perceive the rise of political Islam post the uprisings of 2011 so when all the political Islam groups started to win elections across the board, how did the West perceive that and see that. Here I make a clear distinction between Eastern Europe and Western Europe and the United States. I am not going to go into why that because it will take a lot of time but for me some of them are very different.
The second question I try to answer in that chapter is was it a correct assessment by each and I will be blunt here and say no the three of them in my view saw it from their perspectives. Some saw it as an Arab Spring somehow similar again to the end of the Berlin wall and to form some sort of a democracy some saw it from very different perspectives, some saw it as a threat. For me one of the examples I delve a bit into which I found very interesting is how some of the political groups in Europe which came from a Christian background like in Italy or in Germany, how they actually to a large extent pointed the finger instinctively and in my opinion correct attributes of the thinking of mainstream political Islam.
The third question I try to put forward in that chapter is if I argue that actually the 3 understandings were not in my view, particularly correct so what next, especially for political Islamic groups how the West perceive them is extremely important for many reasons. So what is the revolution of the relationship between the West and the political Islamist groups? I have to say in order to diminish the desire of any of you to buy the book, I don’t go into anything sort of about Islamic communities in the West, and this is not part of that book. I have actually wrote about that a lot in essays but it is not part of this book. The book is very much focused on the wider Middle East Arab world.
The final chapter in the book before the conclusion is what I call the dilemma of the thinking of political Islam right now. Without giving away too many details, there are a number of points right now which have to do with a sense of victimization that some political Islamist groups have with some sense of antagonism that some political Islam groups have. There are some groups that believe that they want to be examined on their experience over the past 20/30 years and I think all of these actually the victimization, the antagonism all of them are merited and I try again to take you on a tour if you would like in that chapter on what is happening right now within the largest Islamist groups, political Islamist groups not militant Islamist groups right now and how they themselves reflect on coming to power in that country, winning these constituencies and then getting these constituencies to demonstrate against them. How they may appeal to some groups in the West and then how some of them actually see them different. How they themselves has been divided over the past 5 or 6 years.
To me it is actually a very interesting chapter because it forced me to delve a lot into the thinking of specific individuals who are very prominent and I name them I don’t shy away from who I am talking about in terms of leaders or in terms of specific groups and how these are seen, these intellectual dilemmas that they are facing right now. I am very grateful I have to say to all of them that they were trusting in sharing their views.
The final chapter is basically looking forward trying to portray 3 or 4 trends around what could be the future of political Islam in that region regarding the groups themselves. It is rather the role of religion in society but it looks at all I have spoken about the political groups, the militant groups, the secular groups, the minorities groups. The lessons learned or not learned from Iran and Turkey, how the liberal experience itself failed in my opinion and how the west intervention in some way was guided or miss guided so I try to connect the threads if you would like to understand.
Slightly over 20 minutes, I hope it wasn’t too long.
Tom Wilson: No, not at all it was fascinating thank you so much. So we will move to questions now and if people who do have a question if you could raise your hand and then say your name and any organization which is relevant that you are associated with. So could we have a show of hands please.
Question 1: Julie Myers, Ariana Capital, very nice to meet you Tariq, a good mutual friend of ours encouraged me to come and I am definitely glad. This year happens to be the 500th year of Martin Luther posting to the Wittenberg Cathedral and a lot of people have said that Islam needs it, its own Wittenberg moment, it needs its protestant revolution and you touched on this but I am just wondering if you could approach what you said maybe from that perspective, for those of us who are Christian is that even a relevant way of looking at Islam that somehow there will be this internal reformer? Martin Luther thought actually if he could just get to Rome he could help them understand that they had mistranslated the bible but he wasn’t trying to start a new religion. So is that even relevant to Islam or is it again seeing it from the outsider’s perspective or is that not going to happen to Islam in terms of any future secularization?
Tarek Osman: The timing is interesting because Islam is 15 hundred years old so you find a lot of people invoking that point. There are quite a few people who have wrote books about that quite recently. There are two points I think are quite interesting to look at, one is it is not true when people say that there wasn’t a reform in Islam, the word reform is loaded primarily from the Christian experience of reformation. The idea that the theology of Islam was one stream of a river that just kept moving forward without really having different canals in and out that fed into it is just not true. The history of Islam specifically 200, 250 years after the birth of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula specifically Islam was at its highest point of interaction with the Persian civilization. During that period there were lots of innovations on the theology of Islam.
Without delving too much on ideas, the idea that there wasn’t intellectual innovation which I actually referred to recently in an article as theological entrepreneurship within Islam has actually been very much there. I tried to address in the first part of the much, which I mentioned Salafism, why did that stream drive and to drive a lot from the mid-1920s, 30s until today and I delve a lot into that so that is point number one.
Point number 2 which I delve into in the last chapter regarding the dilemmas, there is something very interesting going on right now and again you as somebody who does work and stand with the world of innovation might find this quite interesting. The number of Muslims in the world today is anything between 1.4 to 1.7 billion. Demographically at least 40% of them are under 25, some of the people take the number to about 55%. Let’s go with the lower range, let’s say half that means you are talking 600 million Muslims in the world today who A are not in the Arab world first of all and B they are not very much under the burden of the political and the economic devastating circumstances which are there in the Arab world or violence so they are outside that. Number 2, some economists within that cohort of about 600 million Muslims under 25, two-thirds of them are teens.
You can shake your head and think this is a major problem but I actually think it is a wonderful opportunity for these reasons. This is a generation that has super tenuous links to any traditional seat of learning in the Islamic world, any university, any college, any mosque. When do they get their understanding of religion and its role in society – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? What that means simply is that there isn’t any concentration of knowledge that is being fed to them its anything from anywhere from anybody at any time. So if tomorrow someone was to right his or her interpretation of Islam on his or her blog and somehow if they have a bit of good marketing skills and are able to get 10’000 people to read it you then get a movement which is completely out of nowhere. I actually see this as interesting, I am not saying good or bad because that is a long discussion, I have something coming up very soon with LSE on that but what I am trying to say is this idea of Islam entrepreneurship, call it innovation in the theology is happening, whether people like it or not.
There are two extremely important things about it, one by default it renders the big theological seats of learning and accumulation of knowledge obsolete whether in some of the big old schools of theology, it renders them obsolete. They will always come top down, very structured whether through official challenge or not. They have a very limited way of competing with the demeanor what is set out. Number two it means by default you have a competition right now on who will gather largest constituency behind his or her idea. Something very interesting is happening also right now, there are many converts to Islam right not specifically in Europe more than the US who are coming up with their own views about what Islam means to them. This is really interesting and relatively new to Islam and interestingly most of them are women, it is relatively new in terms of size.
What I am trying to say is that there is a lot of innovation taking place right now, probably a lot of it outside the Arab world, almost all of it entirely by young Muslims, many of them come from non-Islamic backgrounds who are putting forward different ideas. There is no doubt in my mind that will lead to innovation.
The final food for thought I will leave you with is will that lead to confrontations or will the process of evolution be smooth? That is a big question mark I think regarding the future of Islam in the next 20, 30 years. I mean remember, you know much better than me I am sure, that the experience which you alluded to created immense violence in the Christian world. Right now I don’t buy that the Levant taking place is due to religious wars but the religious secularization is taking there. So the evolution which you are talking about, this potential innovation we are talking about has potential. New ideas will come. There is a school of thought that has a lot of substantiation behind it which says that it will create further problems, social problems, within parts of the Islamic world.
Question 2: Can you explain why there is so much persecution of Christians in Egypt, why there is so much in Iran activism against human rights, so much hangings taking place.
Tarek Osman: To be honest I would challenge some the assumptions but the bigger question to my mind is what I mentioned regarding this role of minorities which I have said is a full chapter here. You had in Egypt, to use the example you put forward, in the 1920s, you had a Prime Minister who was Christian. Actually the very first modern Prime Minister of Egypt was Christian and a number of Prime Ministers after that were actually non-Muslim in Egypt. I would argue that some of the most intellectual architects of the Egyptian economy even officially in the late 19th Century, early 20th Century were non-Muslim, so of them were Jewish. Now you fast forward a century in the past 30, 40 years now today that social role of non-Muslims is far less. Now that becomes a question of is that a function of state action or is it society? To me because I am focused throughout the book on the social dynamics, to story of the deluge of the social presence of non-Muslim Arabs across the Arab world including Egypt is super paramount, very important story and explains a lot about what has happened to Arab society and Arab state, my view at least.
That is one thing, the other thing when people start to specifically draw attention to the case in which a certain family was killed or certain groups were expelled from a village, to be honest I am not a journalist, I have not covered these things first hand, for me the biggest story is the social trend in the past 40, 50 years. You will find lots of people, especially from the urban centers of the Arab world, in Egypt in Tunisia, in Syria even you always hear them blaming the Gulf, it is all the fault of the Gulf, the rise of the Gulf and the idea of osier ideologists coming from the Gulf when you had millions of our people migrating in the 70s when you had loads of society, yes that played a role. What I tried to do at least in that chapter is delve a bit deeper because I think there is a lot of abdication of responsibility that the Arab middle class does and did in the last 30 or 40 years regarding what happened to the idea of Arabness, to the idea of being secular, to the idea of tolerance and to the idea of having an Arab state rather than a state that drives its identity from a religion. I think yes politicians you can blame them, actually politicians are an easy target to blame, especially in London but I think the real issue is the creation and responsibility of the Middle class.
The middle class to my mind bears the biggest responsibility and especially to my mind, the upper middle class. You talked about Egypt, until 10 years ago the inaudible population in Egypt was about 15% that draws your attention to the immense difference in the upper middle class in a country like that. Anyway it is a long topic.
Question 3: You touched on how the West perceived Islam in different ways. In 2009 Obama seemed to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood. Why do you think that is?
Tarek Osman: Ok I have three quick points on that. One I am not particularly sure, but you might know better, I don’t remember the speech exactly right now but there is one point in the speech I will quote here and I am not sure that he embraced political Islam in that sense.
Question 3: Why I say that is I think President Mubarak was still in power and he had in the front row all representatives of brotherhood.
Tarek Osman: Maybe we have different readings in this case he presented at a religious institution very much close to the state of Egypt. But anyway the bigger point in my mind at least was in that speech which I found very interesting and to some extent relates to the second part of your question. He said and I don’t want to quote him wrongly because I have got the quotes right in the book but something along the lines of “If you” and by you Obama was referring to the Arab regimes, “If you unclench your fists, we will support” or something like that. In other words he was basically saying to the Arab regimes in general and I think that is the analogy he used, if you unclench your fists, so basically if you become more open-minded, more accepting of democracy then you will have more of Americas support and here he meant economic support.
In a nutshell and this is something I delve into in the chapter of the West attitudes to political Islam but the linkage in the American side and again it is very different in my view than the Western European vs Eastern European perceptions of Islam in the past 6 or 7 years. The linkage in the American side in my mind, the acute simplification, was that from the moment the Bush Junior administration started the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East and ended in the Iraq fiasco and major problems in relationships in important countries to the USA like Saudi Arabia who are extremely against the idea of supporting democracy. The Obama administration claimed an idea which I referred to as, excuse the too academic term, into modernization theory and the idea is very simple. We, the US in this case, will invest more money into these markets primarily in the private sector. This will empower the private sector and widen it, it will make the middle class richer which over time will make the middle class want more economic interest and that is through the middle class pushing for political rights and over time this will lead to strengthen the checks and balances in the system, over time this weakens the autocratic regimes and wa la there you got after 20, 30 years you have some sort of dilution in the power of regimes and the emergence of some form of democracy.
That is the idea, if you would like, very stretched out long game in which you are promoting democracy but a very long game in a non-confrontational way and more importantly in a way which is not resource heavy on the US. So that is the idea, if you unclench your fists we will support you economically but the support here is not necessarily to the regime, the idea is that in the long run it will actually evolve the society into something that the US would find interesting.
To answer your question, I apologize for the introduction that was challenged and confirmed by the Arab Spring depending on who you talk to in Washington and New York. You find some people who say the Arab Spring proved that we were right – why – because we had young groups who basically represent the Middle Class, primarily coming from the private sector who basically were very unhappy with the blur between religion and wealth in the Arab world and they thought they wanted change but the change from the middle class, the young class and therefore we the US, were right to adopt that strategy. Those people in Cairo and Tunisia and elsewhere are exactly the kind of people who we, the US wanted them to move and therefore the Arab Spring confirmed we were right.
You had exactly the opposite view that said oh no sorry actually the Arab Spring was exactly wrong because you think that the regimes that had their hand in the Arab world in 08 and 09 are there forever and you wanted to avoid confrontation with them and therefore you wanted to play that long game and therefore you played within the existing structures and actually what happened was snap in the system and what proved very quickly was even those you thought would be the forces of the future, the secular, liberal youth, they do not win any elections and the political Islamists were the ones who won the election and therefore your strategy, before 2011, was totally wrong.
Until today, by the way, some of you might know even better than I do, I was in the US last year for many discussions and until today that debate is still raging, some people say no we were right, you were wrong. It is very relevant to your point. An easier way, an easier intellectual way and some would say politically viable to merge the two schools of thoughts which by the way was very prominent at the political council of the US of the Obama administration, the two views, a way to merge them that actually to a large extent is a view that I understand was the view of at the time Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, was that if political Islam is coming to power through fair elections through the region and if it has evolved a lot in the 20/30 years before that in terms of democracy as we in the US understand it, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with partnering with political Islam because it now merges the two. It merges the idea of we are supporting whatever the product of democracy is and it is supporting the idea of change etc.
As you can imagine that also generated a lot of geopolitical problems, I am not going to go into it otherwise I would speak for 20 minutes, but what I am trying to say is you need to understand slightly or at least from my point, you might disagree with me, but see the narrative I believe was dominant in that American administration before 2011 and the two responses that came to it and one group which was very powerful at the time in the administration said hold on there is a way out, an intellectual way out and also a very pragmatic point of view to move ahead.
Audience member: What is your view? Whether it was right or whether it was wrong?
Tarek Osman: I am one of these boring people whenever you say is it right or wrong I have to analyze them because I really believe in the empathy of ideas. Honestly I believe in intellectual empathy because it is very presumptuous of me to sit down here and say of course they were right, of course they were wrong. I listen to people who very passionately shaped policy and they believed they were right at the time. What I try to do here is, I hope in a fair way, present the different arguments.
I personally believe that actually the position of the US at the time was to a large extent didn’t fully appreciate the history and therefore didn’t fully appreciate how problematic the super quick rise of political Islam in these countries and how it to my mind by default created a lot of social polarization. I think there was a bit of, I don’t want to say naivety, but I think there was a bit of simplification at arriving at that conclusion.
Tom Wilson: We started slightly late so shall we take one more quick round of questions.
Question 4: Inaudible.. called Islamic State, what scope do you think there is in the Islamic world for a non-religious, atheistic reaction or response to that ideology which very often seems to be held together by social authoritarianism without which what we see in the West that affiliation can fall quite suddenly?
Question 5: You seem to side step the role of Islam itself within political Islam, you have done a beautiful description of all the historical trends and groups but you haven’t criticized Islam at all and I think that is the problem for me, you can’t criticize Islam because you are seen as Islamophobic and there are so many people who have tried to criticize Islam as a religion. There is a lot of problems in the religion it seems to be a totalitarian religion that doesn’t accept criticism and unless you can accept criticism you can’t change. I think that you have to start with the theology not the politics because the theology tells them you have to be involved in politics, you have to control. Surely it is the religion that should be under critique rather than the politicians?
Question 6: I just wanted to pick up on a comment that you made at the end of your reply to the first question that you don’t view the wars in the Middle East as primarily religious wars at the moment and I wondered if you could elaborate a bit on why not.
Question 7: There is the Uma and its globalization interests which was how does this scale up with the Arab nation states because the Arab nation state is actually a Western import it wasn’t actually part of the concept of the empire what was Islamic and called Uma.
Tarek Osman: Let me start by the first question. To be honest I will challenge and I hate doing that because I have a microphone you don’t, I would challenge a lot of the statements you said but I will come to your question I am not going to escape it. You made a link quickly between some information on the representation of Islam and now we have the Islamic State and I think it is a representation rather than the representation. I think this is really important it is not political correctness and I will come to that point about religion, it is not political correctness it is really important to my mind even just by the limited standards of Islam in the Eastern Mediterranean let alone Islam in the Arab world, let alone Islam in the Islamic world that ISIS even within militant Islam is one foot of thinking and I disagree with those people who are just completely condescending that fail to see variety and there are writers by the way just recently who have released books discussing just that.
What I am trying to say is the quick generalization that it is their presentation it is really far from being that. I am sure…
Audience member: I just want to say I was talking about a reinterpretation of information regarding Islam be careful what you wish for as arguably that is their interpretation and the University of Cairo says that it is a terrorist state it is not rhetorical by any means.
Tarek Osman: That is another point actually that, it is easy for me to say read the chapter on Salafism but the notion that the theology and ideology of a group such as ISIS is a direct line to any of the thinkers I refer to in the Salafism is really an accurate representation. I am not denying that thinking it is within an umbrella that the Arab Muslims believe in it that is a fact of course and I am not in any way actually any way talking about Islam but what I am trying to say is the line of ISIS as now a form of reformation of Islam, no it is not it is a very old type of thinking within Islamic thinking in general and has been there for the past 6 or 7 centuries. 7 centuries forward that thinking continues it is not reformation in the sense of it is not the innovation. So you can argue that it is a thinking that has kept reappearing but that is different from it is a new thinking that is taking an innovation with Islam.
An important point it is a thinking of Islam, I am not denying it is a thinking of Islam, are there thousands of people that believe it, absolutely maybe even more, but it is not innovation it is a thinking that keeps repeating. One of the things which I am trying to address is why it keeps repeating, why in 2017 you still have that thinking which appeared 7 centuries ago, still coming back, why. It is not an innovation so the point of be careful what you wish for – ye you are right – but the experiences we have had before the innovations before the thinking never led to that line of reform.
The second point around is there a place for atheism. Let’s put it this way there is now a very noticeable increase in the number of people who reject religion in the wider Middle East, not only Muslims by the way, also non-Muslims which is quite interesting as bear in mind I actually said that in Universities in the region. It is also quite interesting regarding the role of institutions in both religions here, I am not referring to Judaism as it is extremely small in numbers, it is basically Islamic and Christianity but is that trend that would play a sizeable role, even a significant role in the evolution of the thinking of the Islamic world at least in our lifetime, I doubt. So it will be there, it will grow absolutely, is it going to effect the political side of things such as freedom of expression, I think yes but it is something that you will keep a big or a long eye on regarding the evolution of Islam itself I doubt.
There is one thing you said that also needs to be highlighted. That religious affiliation in the West typically by anyone in the Arab states in the past 30 years would challenge that massively. I think many people would look at places in Europe today, not in North Western Europe but the idea that religious affiliation in politics in the West has died I think is incredibly challengeable, especially in what is happening in the US today.
There is a repeated thing about the issue that it is Islam itself, the theology of Islam itself and I don’t want to question your knowledge you have probably done your homework on all of that but I have two points here which is if you have read the main books of Islam, is there primarily and somehow much more violence in these books than you would find in the pillar books of other multi-ethnic religions? That is not the answer to you but it is the first point I will raise, the idea or the notion of if you look at the theology of Islam and the writings of Islam and the Quran that it is completely different to other religions that it also strange. I think that anybody who read the Old Testament would also have some questions which could be raised.
The idea itself which comes to your point did Islam itself evolve notions itself mostly Islamic and notions of disagreeing with it as other religions did that is the affirmation I think we are talking about but that is not necessarily political Islam here. Now we are talking about Islam as a religion. I will say I am not addressing that point, it is a good point, but my book is about political Islam in terms of its role in society. It is not necessarily about did Islam evolve notions within it that sets disagreement with the fundamental principles as other religions did but keep in mind also that by evolving other notions of traction within other religions, whether that is Judaism or Christianity argue that the religion itself has been diluted. So the question is did Islam evolve with principles that dilute its own theology to become more modern – yes – but it evolved as I said many centuries ago and interestingly all of these rules have been dried up – why – the book I am writing right now based on Islam tackles the idea of what about the religion itself as opposed to its role in society.
There was a final point about the Uma and I agree with the gentleman who said the idea of the modern political state is an import from the West that is absolutely true.
Tom Wilson: Sorry we have run out of time and I know that people will be eager to purchase copies of the book. I apologise our events team needs to get away after the event. Thank you very much for coming in addressing us and thank you very much to our audience.