Middle East studies in the News
Interview with Professor John Esposito: On ISIS, the Middle East, and Terrorism
by Reyhan Güner
The efforts of ISIS to warrant its actions through Islam has caused the attribution of barbaric massacres to the religion. This creates the risk of a resurgence of Islamophobia which has continued since the al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks.
In the beginning, the Arab Spring had inspired many who desired democracy and human rights. Now, however, we have observed the coming to power of a coup administration led by Sisi in Egypt and the rapidly increasing strength of radical groups like ISIS. What are the implications of this situation in the Muslim World?
From my point of view, the situation in Egypt is basically a restoration of authoritarianism. With the military-led coup, the signal was sent that democratization or the attempt to democratize is a directive. Regardless of the problems and disagreements surrounding Morsi and his policies, the reality is that any kind of government that is moving towards democracy should pursue the process of change through elections, not through a military-led coup. However, the dominance and influence of the military in the core of the political system, at least in the bureaucracy, created this adverse effect.
I think that the emergence of groups like ISIS is certainly the outcome of failures just as those seen in Egypt's unsuccessful journey for democracy. Gulf States continuously emphasized this; despite supporting the concept of self-determination, the U.S. and the EU did not really speak up strongly enough, there was no genuine push for democracy in Egypt, and election security was not completely provided in the country. This strong and negative attitude towards democratization indicates how the Arab Spring has had serious implications for Muslim countries.
ISIS is currently dominating the international headlines with its activities in Iraq and Syria. Consequently, there has been much discussion about stopping ISIS' activities. How can ISIS be stopped in your point of view?
First off, I do not see any government whose intelligence agencies or analysts foresaw what ISIS would do or what it would become, and I think it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to predict how the organization will develop from now on. Furthermore, the use of air strikes will have limited effect on ISIS and its presence, much less its threat.
This being said, let me move to the next question which is whether we are going to see a government that will deploy troops to Syria. I do not think that this will happen. I think that the problem is the inability of governments in the region, the US, and the EU to effectively respond to the two-year-long Syrian crisis, as well as their inability to provide significant support to mainstream or moderate opponents of Assad. What we end up with is foreign fighters and different kinds of jihadist groups making their way to Syria.
As for the use of air strikes, in a sense I do believe that they can prevent ISIS from holding the ground in some specific areas, but I do not see them as an end-all solution. Even now, there are a number of governments in the region which have been somewhat ambivalent towards the use of air power. It is very interesting that President Obama and Secretary Kerry have recently expressed that the U.S. now has allies in the region to support it. However, they did not refer to the names of their allies. By not explicitly mentioning specific countries, the fact was reflected that it is taking time to even get people in a place to agree on what kind of support they are going to provide.
Addressing the nation, Obama explained his four point ISIS strategy as consisting of air strikes, sending more troops to Iraq, halting the funding of ISIS, and increasing humanitarian efforts. How do you evaluate this strategy? Will it be enough to stop ISIS or can the plan be enhanced?
As I previously said, the military option is very limited when it comes to stopping ISIS. There are claims that 5,000 fighters in Syria are planned to be trained by the U.S. in order to fight against ISIS. One of the problems with this is that it could be over a year before such troops are actually provided, not just supported, but actually trained and ready for combat. Furthermore, there are also some concerns about those fighters, because they are also seen by some as members of Assad's military. So I do not foresee this tactic working.
I think at some point when one is dealing with terrorists, as we experienced with Bin Laden and al Qaeda, there needs to be a short and a long term strategy. I do not believe that a short term strategy is going to be effective at eliminating ISIS. It may limit ISIS for a short period of time, but in the end ISIS may well be around for 3 years or maybe even 8 years.
In the meantime, there also has to be a creative attempt to delegitimize ISIS' so-called Islamic message. ISIS is not going to care what many major mainstream Muslim religious leaders say. Nonetheless, we need to mobilize these religious leaders, various human rights organizations, and others to delegitimize ISIS' appeal by illuminating their barbaric killings, beheadings, and so on.
As a last point, in its battle against ISIS, the U.S. should strive to gain the support of not only the Western countries but also the Muslim World, including both countries in the Middle East like Turkey and countries that are farther away from the site of the conflict like Indonesia.
During his address to the nation, Obama interestingly pointed out that, "It is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, and tolerance, and a more hopeful future". What is a hopeful future for Muslims according to Obama's vision?
It is difficult to state clearly what Obama's vision is. However, here he should use more specific phrases, otherwise his words just sound like a political statement. Right now, the Obama administration faces a fair number of people, not only in the Muslim world but also non-Muslims, who would say that Obama's policy in the Middle East has been extraordinarily disappointing compared to the promises that he made when he first became president. Even though he was initially very resistant to Netanyahu's settlements and fairly critical in the recent war in Gaza, during which he strongly condemned the disproportionate murder and destruction that took place there, Obama has not been able to improve his image. When we look at the statistics, more than 2,000 people died in Gaza while the death toll was 64 for Israel. Furthermore, while only 6 of the Israelis killed were civilians, in Gaza, most of the casualties were women and children. With this in mind, Obama's statement of "a more hopeful future" loses credibility.
The same thing is true with regard to Syria. Obama has to figure out a way how to rehabilitate the situation in Syria for "a more hopeful future". Today, even the supporters of Obama in Congress criticize him because of his lack of a clear strategy in Syria. Unfortunately, the same is true for the Arab Spring as well. Egypt had a military-led coup and the President of the United States avoided the administration, refuses to use the word "coup" and began to claim early on that the generals in Egypt were on the path of democratization. Egypt under Sisi has experienced the most extensive, or most violent, period of repression in modern Egyptian history with the slaughtering of a couple of thousands of civilians, most of which are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to claims, there are around 40,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were imprisoned by Sisi's government itself. This situation has been heavily criticized by many people and major human rights groups, with much of the vitriol targeted at the silence of the American administration in general.
Consequently, even though Obama hopes to mobilize support for U.S. operations in the region with the statement, "a more hopeful future", there are serious concerns about the credibility of that statement.
What do you think about the so-called Islamic vision of ISIS?
ISIS's "Islamic vision" is not very "Islamic". The members of the organization claim that they want to establish an Islamic State or even a transnational caliphate. However, ISIS's vision completely relies on widespread terrorism and the slaughter of Christians, Yezidis and Muslims who disagree with them. I use the word "slaughter", not just killing, because we are talking about the indiscriminate, barbaric murder of a great number of people by way of beheading and many other brutal acts.
Actually, this vision is not so different from al Qaeda's. Like al Qaeda, ISIS falsely boils down the principles of Islamic Law when it comes to fighting and the principles that we see in the Quran and in the Hadith with regard to proportionate, defensive fighting that looks down on the killing of non-combatants etc. I do not think that this is a very Islamic vision at all. It hijacks religion in order to legitimate, mobilize and recruit. That is its purpose. Theirs is a kind of religion that is extraordinarily full of violence and abuse that is not in accordance with the Quran, the traditions of the Prophet or even with Islamic Law.
Can the actions of ISIS such as the beheadings of journalists create a new wave of Islamophobia?
Yes, there is this risk. I was on the internet yesterday and saw two kinds of websites. The first was an Islamophobic website, and the second was a website that tries to legitimize the beheadings and so on. When websites that fall into the second category try to explain these massacres with reference to Islamic norms, the websites in the first category claim, "Look, Islam is such a bloody religion that it legitimizes beheadings". In other words, ISIS's attempts to justify its actions with reference to Islam causes barbaric massacres to be attributed to the religion. This creates the risk of a resurgence of Islamophobia which has continued since the rise of al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks.
Previously, I spent an hour on a major radio program discussing the probability of ISIS attacking the U.S. or any other European country. One of the issues that we talked about was that in order for an attack to be carried out, the organization of ISIS would not have to be physically present, rather, it would try to use Westerns, Americans and Europeans, who can easily enter and exit their countries to do so. This reality both increases Islamophobia and the fear of Islam even more.
Turkey's security has been challenged by ISIS several times. For instance, ISIS militants kidnapped Turkish diplomats, although they were recently rescued. Furthermore, ISIS has threatened the Turkish government several times that it will attack İstanbul. So, what do you think about Turkey's role in stopping ISIS terrorism?
Obviously, it is difficult to make a judgment about Turkey from a distance. It seems native solutions change, but historically, the current government has acted very strongly against any group that it considers to be committing any act of terrorism. Turkey had problems in the past with the Kurdish issue and with PKK terrorism, and there have also been deadly radical Islamic terrorist attacks within the country. When we look at the kidnapping of the 49 Turkish citizens, Turkey could not assume a very high profile or pursue an aggressive approach to ISIS out of the risk to the lives of these individuals. Aside from this, I believe Turkey's attitude towards terrorist groups has not changed.
The U.S. should try to combat ISIS with the help of other countries in the region, not just with countries from the West, because this is primarily the region's problem. If this is not done, ISIS and many others can easily perceive the operation as orchestrated by the U.S. and dismiss the other Western countries involved. These powers will be intervening and they may even occupy, so I think that it is going to be important to see how Turkey responds, and ultimately, how Saudi Arabia responds, and how Jordan responds… I think we will be seeing greater focus on Turkish policy in this respect both by the government and by the media.
Do you believe that there is a difference between Turkey's role in the fight against al Qaeda in 2001, and Turkey's recent role in the fight against ISIS?
The role that Turkey will play in the fight against ISIS will be more limited. As far as I deduced from my talks with several Turkish politicians, Turkey had to be more careful about its policies and the statements it made about ISIS due to its kidnapped citizens. While being eager to cooperate against ISIS in order to develop its relations with the U.S. and the EU, Turkey also has to be prudent about which policies it chooses to pursue, especially considering that the ISIS threat is directly on its borders and that it is hosting millions of refugees. Here, Turkey should first decide on whatever it is going to do to face ISIS and then draw a positive image for cooperation with international actors.
This interview was firstly published in the October 2014 Issue of Analist Monthly Journal in Turkish language.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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