Vol. 14 No. 4
Spring 2005

by Linda Marion


An expert on the Middle East provides some insight into the world’s most combustible hot spot.

If you want answers to difficult questions, follow sage, age-old advice: ask an expert.

The University of Utah boasts many experts in many fields, none more versed in Middle Eastern affairs than Ibrahim Karawan, director of the Middle East Center (since 2000), associate professor of the Department of Political Science, Sam Rich Scholar for Global Affairs in the College of Social Sciences, and international consultant.

Egyptian by birth, Karawan studied at the University of Cairo, where he received B.S. and M.S. degrees in political science and economics, then came to the United States to pursue M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at UCLA, also in political science. He has been on the U of U faculty since 1988, and received the Superior Teaching Award at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2002.

Between 1995 and 1997 Karawan was the Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies and directing staff member at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for International Studies at Oxford University and a Fellow at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Karawan has amassed an extensive list of achievements and publications during his academic career, and is often called upon by the media and policymakers to offer insight and commentary into Middle Eastern affairs. He has appeared frequently on television, including al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi Television, the BBC World Service, Radio France International, Swiss Radio International, National Public Radio, the Voice of America and CNN, among others, and has been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, Los Angeles Times, and The Christian Science Monitor.

He agreed to share some of his views with Continuum magazine. Following are some excerpts from our conversation:

Continuum: During the 2004 presidential campaign, President Bush was criticized by pundits and the public for saying that the war on terrorism wasn’t winnable. Although the President quickly retracted, do you think his answer, however inadvertent, was essentially correct?

Karawan: If you mean eradicating terrorism altogether, the war against it is not winnable. It is possible to reduce the intensity of terrorist attacks by making it more difficult for terrorists to coordinate their activities among various states. Global terrorism requires a global response.

The biggest problem in combating terrorism is that it follows the logic of small numbers. Small numbers [of people] can inflict great damage, but are difficult to catch. [On 9/11] 19 people were able to inflict horrendous damage—in human, economic and political terms—on the mightiest power in the world. If a small group of terrorists had access to chemical weapons, which are increasingly available, they could cause even worse damage. Taking into consideration the logic of small numbers, any politician who promises an unqualified end to terrorism either does not know what he or she is talking about or is misleading the public.

Continuum: The American people seem to like definitive answers. If policymakers equivocate and don’t say decisively, ‘Yes, we can win the war on terrorism,’ people get nervous.

Karawan: Even if the American public has a political culture that values decisiveness, people should not be misled. Americans are known for their optimism, the sense that every problem has a solution. While this trait is admirable, the larger question is: within what time frame, and what sacrifices are people ready to make to achieve stated goals?

Some terrorist groups have as many as 2,000 members, are highly mobile and increasingly transnational in composition. How can such groups be contained? Fortunately, there is increasing global awareness of the threat of terrorists in small numbers. Even France and the United States, which are not on the best of terms right now, understand the need to cooperate. Political views may differ but countries know that they can’t afford not to exchange information—about hiding places, training and weapon systems, patterns of recruitment, etc. That is a function of an interdependent world. No country can afford to seek national solutions to transnational problems.

Continuum: Can the U.S. or the West ever ‘win’ in the Middle East by using force? If not, what must we do?

Karawan: While force matters, an effective foreign policy must be used within the context of a broader strategy rather than one that relies on the sheer asymmetry of power. A country should not rule out using power—and won’t if sovereign interests are involved. But the biggest challenge that America faces is how to use force prudently and not as the first resort. Consideration of the limits of power is important, too.

In preparing for the war against Iraq there was a dose of arrogance and misinformation [on the part of the U.S. administration]. There was also a lack of understanding of the social structure [in Iraq], which understandably provoked antagonism in the Arab world. For example, the whole notion of ‘de-Ba’athification,’ meaning to eliminate the Ba’ath party [the ruling party of Saddam Hussein] from Iraq , shows a lack of understanding. The Ba’ath party in Saddam’s Iraq was like the Soviet Communist party under Stalin: There were a few hardcore believers and many people were only members—not because they believed in the dogma but because they wanted their sons to work in the foreign ministry and their daughters to marry well. By assuming that every Ba’athist is part of the hardcore regime, you antagonize many people.

Continuum: Are there no moderating voices coming from the intellectual establishment or religious leadership in the Middle East opposing terrorism by Militant Islamist Groups (MIGs)? Is there no hope for a pacifist movement, in the tradition of Mohandas Gandhi, in the Islamic world?

Karawan: There are moderating voices in the Islamic world. The louder voices, however, belong to a different category. By the way, as a young man, Anwar Sadat thought that Gandhi-style resistance might work. So, he dressed in the appropriate garb and went up to his rooftop to launch the struggle against the British until he was summoned by his father, who advised him that the only thing he’d get from his efforts would be pneumonia.

There are fundamental differences between ordinary Muslims and organized Islamists—moderates and militants. The first group wants to focus on individual religiosity, social justice, prayer, fasting and so on, working to change an individual’s characteristics to make him more congruent with the teachings of Islam. Organized Islamists, on the other hand, are not just Muslims in the religious sense—they want political power. These are two important divisions that sometimes get glossed over.

The militants believe that you must eradicate all the manifestations of secularism and Western influences, which are considered morally decadent and corrupt. They start from the premise that there isn’t much time left—that Islamic identities are being smothered. Their children watch Michael Jackson and Madonna and parents feel that the future generation is being compromised. Militants have before them the image of five minutes to midnight, so there is a sense of urgency and immediacy.

In response, the moderates say, ‘What are you so excited about?’ They believe the power of the state is is still considerable and, hence, insurrection will be met with failure. The Shah of Iran, Nasser in Egypt, Attaturk in Turkey, and Bourgiba in Tunisia have all embraced secularism, but they failed to stop the wave of Islamization in society.

Continuum: The history of the Middle East is rich in cultural and intellectual advancements, yet the area has stalled in its development and innovation, relying primarily on its abundant oil revenues as an economic base. Is this one of the reasons that some young adults in the Middle East turn to terrorism — essentially because of the lack of opportunities available?

Karawan: Looking at it from a socio-economic perspective, the terrorists who carried out 9/11 did it because they wanted to, not because they had to. Most of them, including Al-Qa’idah’s Ayman al-Zawahiri from Eypt, were specialists in medicine, engineering, pharmacology, physics and so on.

The socio-economic element is relevant, it’s just not decisive—at least for the leadership. [Socio-economic disadvantage] does increase the pool from which the recruitment [of potential terrorists] takes place. There’s a lot of rage and resentment in the region on the part of many have-nots. But the main reason the situation is so bad is the absence of a reasonable level of political participation. The Islamists, leftists and social democrats all agree that there is too much authoritarianism and dictatorship in the Arab world in the name of tradition or under the banner of revolution.

Hence, the rage [in the Arab world] is two-pronged: it is socio-economic because the gap between rich and poor is widening, and, with that, the sense of being controlled and manipulated by governments. The state is unable to carry out its commitment to guarantee jobs, provide free medical care and education, and subsidize transportation, yet it still demands the kind of loyalty and acquiescence that it did when buying society’s support—the so-called ‘social contract.’ The states in that neighborhood are not delivering, because they face a deep-rooted fiscal crisis, and that is resented.

Continuum: What do you think about the idea of implementing American-style democracy in Iraq?

Karawan: Democracy is not an American invention. The discussion of democracy has been taking place among Arab intellectuals for a long time—before America raised the issue—but we don’t hear too much about it. In addressing the subject [Former Secretary of State] Colin Powell reflects almost exactly what noted Arab intellectuals have said about the importance of democracy [in the Arab Human Development Report]: political participation, establishing the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, and the empowerment of women, etc. If Mr. Powell could be accused of anything, it’s not intrusion, it’s excessive quotation from the report.

All the political factions—leftists, rightists, pan-Arabists, moderate Islamists—agree that there is a need for relaxing restrictions on freedom of expression and association. The problem is, the attitude in the Arab world is to reject whatever America says, even if it’s good for them or even if it came from Arab sources. My view is, if you don’t like the word democracy, call it something else—inclusion, pluralism, participation, whatever. It’s time to put an end to some governments locking up large numbers of people in prison, showing up at people’s houses at 3 a.m. and making them disappear for 10 to 15 years for telling a joke, and in some cases dissolving people in chemicals because you don’t like their politics.

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