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Bahout: “Some problems like the Arab-Israeli conflict don’t have a solution”

During his visit to Istanbul, Joseph Bahout was kind enough to share his views on Charlie Hebdo attack, the situation in Middle East, the foreign fighters and the refugee problem. Bahout is a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, Washington, DC. He is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Institut d´Etudes Politiques de Paris and served as a permanent consultant for the Policy Planning Unit at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs


How can you explain the motives behind the attack to Charlie Hebdo?
Charlie Hebdo attack is a very complex issue. From outside it is seen as a terrorist attack like any other one against Western target. It is important to keep in mind that France has this very radical way of separating religion from public sphere. France has intellectual tradition criticizing religion, making humor of some religious values. The second thing is that contrary to 9/11 or other attacks, it was not an outsider attack on a Western country. It was an attack done by French people. Of course their name was Said and Sheriff Kuashi. They are from Muslim, Algerian origin but they are second or third generation French. So it tells something about the issue of integration and racism. The third layer has to do with ISIS, Al Qaeda and what is happening in the Middle East.
Even these three reasons are not enough to explain what happened. If you want to understand what will unfortunately become probably a trend in the West, is that these Muslim populations of Europe are in fact seeing every day, for 3-4 years now, on TV the ongoing bloodshed in Syria and other places. In their mind the narrative that they are internalizing more and more is that the West is letting Muslims being killed without any intervention or any care. For instance the chemical attack in Syria, soon after the US let down the issue of red line and intervention, you started reading tweets, Facebook posts and articles in the Muslim world saying “This is because Syrian lives don’t matter, Muslim lives don’t have a cost. If this is the rule of the game, let us defend ourselves the way we can.” They have the idea that this region is being ignored by the West. The cynical aspect of the Charlie Hebdo issue is that France is not on the same line. Three years before the Charlie Hebdo attack, Hollande restated the position of France saying that Assad is the responsible and should be get rid of. But simply in the Muslim mind, the West is guilty of abandoning the Muslim world to itself and to Iran, the rise of Shi’ism, Hezbollah...

What can be done?
What worries me is that if this kind of attack is going to be repeated, the easier reflex for Western decision makers will be to say, “We have to work with regimes like Assad to curb the rise of extremism.” My view is that it is not only ethically good, but even in terms of real politics and feasibility it could be a major mistake. In fact, when regimes like Assad are staying alive they produce new generation of Jihadist extremists every day. So the only way to treat the root of the problem is to reshape the political structures of the region, to integrate more segments into the governance, to open up participation, to address the Sunni question fundamentally. And only a Sunni representative regime can do that, not a regime that is perceived for wrong or right as being the stooge of Iran. So I think that we have to be aware about that and not be tempted by hurrying too quickly towards easy solutions that in fact will produce exactly the contrary in few years.

What can you say about the society of France and the integration problem? What worries me is that the attackers were born in France…
France like many other Western countries, but more than others, have this colonial history. So in fact Kuashi type of guys is a product of France's history. They are not a result of lax policies of immigration as some extreme right wing people like Marine Le Pen says. These people are the sons of the people who were under French colonial rule, who were French citizens before the 50's. Let us put down the figures. In France today there are around 5 to 6 million Muslims. In France Islam is the second religion. Of course no one would have expected a violent act like that unless you see that these people have a problem of integration which has economic and social impact. But also we should not be too naïve, they have a problem of identity. They don’t feel at home in this country.
France has this particularity; its definition of secularism, laïcité which in fact does not resemble to any other secularism in Europe. In France there is a kind of radical and sometimes violent anti-clericalism, anti-religious sentiment. I am aware that I am talking to Şalom, but for the Jews is something particular. In France the issue of religion is usually perceived badly; you can laugh about religion, you can attack religion. The French Republic after the revolution was very much founded on anti-church policies. So France has this particularity and also it has this 5 to 6 million people who are new to French DNA. Islam is a particular religion. It has another way of seeing the relation between society and religion. Religion is also a code of conduct, it is a law. In France the political culture does not permit at all that religions or groups organize themselves in order to have an expression. I think this point will be the coming debate in France. It won't be easy to solve. I don't advocate at all that France changes its identity and philosophy by accommodating communities as such but it will have to find a way of giving these peoples a sense of identity and not only to treat the political, economic and social question.

What do you suggest?
When you go to the States or even to England you see the minorities in the civil service, in the national representation. In USA, you have a black president. So in fact the issue of ‘visible minorities’, as you call it in France, has been solved in a more aggressive way with positive discrimination. In France the philosophy of ‘we don’t want to know what the people’s origin is’, has left them without a bonus of this positive discrimination which could have helped them to be more present in public sphere. I lived in France for twelve years. In the French parliament they don’t have a lot of Muslims, Blacks, Magrabi or Vietnamese... France was a colonial power, these people are in France and they are not represented. The issue of making quotas is not at all desirable but probably there should be some mechanism to open more avenues to these people in order for them to feel that they are represented, that they are taken into account, that they have cultural rights... without breaking the unity of the republic which is a sacred principal in France. The challenge is huge but I thing that time is very urgent because things are becoming dangerous. For instance the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were attacks against six or seven mosques in France. I don’t want to say it is the seed of a civil war but you have the risk of tension within the society.

About foreign fighters, France has many citizens in Syria and Iraq, more than any other Western country. Who are they? What might lead them to choose this path?
France has produced or sent around 750 foreign fighters to Syria with mainly ISIS, there are 200 French who are still in there. What striking in the figures is that around 40-45% are French Muslim converts. They were French Catholics with French names that converted to Islam and became Ali, Hussein or Ahmed. We know from religious sociology that newly converted people usually have more devotion than others. But the question is; ‘Why a French in Breton or Alsace would convert to Islam at the age of 17 or 18 in the 21st century?’ Islam does not give them a bonus to integrate more to the French society.
The French intelligence interrogated them and some sociologists worked on the interviews. What these people say is that their conversion and Jihad give a meaning to their life. Most of them said that before converting they were envisaging to do carriers like Médecins Sans Frontières, Relief Aid, work abroad in the third world... This people have a sense of mission, of compassion to causes and they could not find it in the secular society. So they converted, become believers, then fanatics and then murderers. I read a study by a French anthropologist who studied 100 profiles. Many of them come from leftist parents, not religious at all. They are looking for a mission and they believe this is the place where they could be useful. By the way a lot of them went there and were very disappointed because the local members of ISIS didn’t welcome them, put them in very poor duties like kitchen work. They were back to France saying, ‘Is this Jihad?’ So it tells us something about European societies, that in fact it is not only a social, economic matter, it is also a political matter, a question of society.

Arab Spring was a big disappointment, how do you see the future of the Middle East with an unconventional non-state actor like ISIS?
The Arab Spring is a disappointment. We have a reading that says Arab Spring was a disappointment because any way in the Arab world a revolution would not have been possible because people are religious and I don’t share at all this view. You have others that would say; it was good to have this uprising but because the political forces were not able to do something positive, it turned out to be bad. It is partly true. I think we had all the reasons to be positive about the Arab revolts. However two or three things led it to fail. One of them is the fabric of the society; the fact that the civil society was not strong enough, political forces could not organize enough, tradition of liberalism in the Arab world is very weak, sometimes nonexistent. But we have to acknowledge the huge abandonment of these revolutions and phenomenon by the West and mainly by the US.

So what about the democracy promotion of the US?
I am not for the democracy promotion à la bouche, but I am not also with what Obama is doing which is in fact not to touch anything. In fact the West has to stand by its own values. Unfortunately the vacuum left by the Western powers and the US foremost filled by the Gulf States, states that were both counter-revolutionary and sectarian and religious in nature. If you leave to them to cater this phenomenon of course they will produce Nusra and ISIS and other actors. Five years ago, Western reports about the Arab world, they were saying ‘The deadlock between the autocrats and Islamists is unhealthy. We have to break it, we have to nurture civil society, liberal forces.’ This is the kind of democracy promotion that I am advocating.
Now when the Arab Spring started, all of a sudden West said ‘we have nothing to do with that’. Of course the more organized forces like the Islamists would take it over and of course they will predominate, which will push the authoritarian and autocratic regimes like Syria to become much more violent and much more repressive. So yes, the Arab Spring is a big disappointment, a missed opportunity.
If you know a little bit about the Arab intellectual history, there was a real chance of having a liberal, pluralistic system in the 20’s and the 30’s. It was aborted partly because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But even before the birth of Israel it was aborted by the rise of fascism in Europe that influenced some fascist movements in the Arab world. It was aborted also by Islam at that moment, the rise of Muslim Brotherhood and because the Arab bourgeoisie was not up to the challenge. Today we had the chance of maybe correcting what was aborted in the 30’s and we failed it again. And this time it will not be a missed opportunity only, it will be a mess, a chaos. The states have failed, the framework of the states is fragile if not completely dismantled, forces like ISIS are the ones who are expressing today the mood of protest unfortunately. Ten years from now the West will look at this phenomenon and will probably say, ‘We should have done more.’ But it will be too late.

We have also the Syrian refugee problem that changes the composition of the societies in many countries especially in Turkey...
Syria is a real nightmare and it will not stop in the foreseen future. Syrian population is 22 million and you have today in the best case 8-9 million people displaced. Meaning almost half of the country is displaced, and among these, 4-5 million are displaced outside Syria, in the neighboring countries. All the specialists of the refugee issues in the world know that in any refugee situation you have almost one third that does not go back, that will be residual. So what you have to expect is that -countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey- a change in the demography. In some countries like Lebanon and a little bit less in Jordan this issue is also sectarian, it touches the political equilibrium. For instance in Lebanon the political power sharing is based on a very accurate division between communities; Sunni, Shia, Christian. So if all of a sudden you pour 500 thousand people on the Lebanese system- at the moment they are 1.5 million but if we assume 500 thousand will stay in Lebanon- that changes the structure of the society. So you are defining the political game, the political structure, identity, belongingness... And this is not a political issue that you can solve with a decree or a law or money from the EU. Here you are playing with the genetics of a country. I think this is the new challenge to come on top of all the rest. For instance in Lebanon for the past 3-4 decades one of the big heated debate was the Palestinians refugees, now you also have Syrians. We will discuss the right of return with Bashar Assad in five years if he stays in power. And this is the myopia of the West when they say let’s accommodate Assad. You are freezing huge set of problems that will not have a solution. You find a solution only for 6 months because you have stopped the killings but you will have a problem in two years from now.  

Are you optimistic about the future of the Middle East?
No, frankly I am not optimistic at all. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been going for one hundred years and it is not solved. And I think we will probably die and this conflict will be open. So I don't see why human nature needs to think that some problems forcibly have a solution. Some problems don’t have a solution. It will not be as explosive as it is today, but I think that the Levant needs time to be reshaped and reordered. There is a new region which is by all standards probably going to keep its stability which is the Gulf. But if or if not Iran has a deal with the West, these countries will have huge problems of succession, Islam, resources... I am not sure ten years from now Saudi Arabia will be the same Saudi Arabia we know. There are lots of other issues that will be in turmoil, that are not in turmoil today and that will add to the general instability. Of course probably Iraq will get better in the years to come, but ISIS will leave Iraq and go to Syria. We can treat some of the symptoms to calm down certain things but refugee problem for instance cannot be reverted in one or two days. So it is very difficult to be optimistic. Today Arab nationalism is almost dead, Islamism is revisited by forces like ISIS, liberals have lost their chance with the Arab revolutions… So I don’t see where would be the actor that could lead a positive dynamics for the ten-fifteen years to come. 

Karel Valansi Şalom 4 February 2015

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